Mum fined for calling son a poof?

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At first sight the headline suggested a case for the Language Log UK Free Speech Watch Desk and the Abusive Epithets Work Group: Mother fined £250 for 'poof' abuse of gay son. A $370 fine just for using the word 'poof', even within the family? What next? Jail time just for calling one's clumsy husband a stupid bastard? Family life would collapse. Intrafamilial insults are part of a great British tradition.

But no, studying of the fine detail of the article (in the Metro, a free UK newspaper) revealed that it wasn't a matter of word use at all.

The mother, one Celia Duncan, actually swung her car around in a U-turn on seeing her estranged son holding hands with his boyfriend in an Aberdeen street, screeched to a halt behind the two boys, and as they fled in terror over a wall and into some woodland, she chased them, hollering "Fucking poofs!" Later she went further, with a voicemail: "I will get you, believe me, and you will get your fucking head kicked in." Finally she underlined it by texting: "I will get you and your poof."

'Poof' (which has the vowel of put, not the vowel of poo) is a familiar and rather mild deprecatory term for homosexuals, familiar in the variant form "poofter" from an early Monty Python sketch about a homophobic Australian philosophy department. It is dismissive, and nobody using it in anger or contempt would retain my respect; but my impression is that it is not as hostile or ugly as the American English term fag. And anyway, I don't think that our response to "hate speech" should ever be the legal tabooing of individual words.

As it turns out, poof has not been entered on some index of words that will get you fined $370 if you use them around the house. Nor should it be, in my view. This story is not about lexical choice or linguistic freedoms. Rather, the moral of this story is that running after a 16-year-old kid threatening to kick his fucking head in for holding hands in with someone he has feelings for is not legal in Britain, even if the boy is your biological offspring.

Celia Duncan was fined but spared the prison sentence that might ordinarily be expected to follow a threat of death or grievous bodily harm. Her son Stuart will presumably continue to find the company of his boyfriend more appealing than that of his homicidally inclined mother. But it's not a linguistic issue. The Language Log Free Speech division and Word Taboo Response Team can stand down.

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