Don't mention coconuts

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I ought to be grateful to see any sort of sporadic twitching of anti-racism, since I despise racists so much, but as I have said before, I sometimes find it hard to summon up a great deal of enthusiasm for some UK victories over hate speech. Let me tell you about a story I meant to mention back at the end of June but didn't get around to. It seems to have almost completely slipped away from public notice in the six weeks. The aspect of it that is likely to astonish Americans acquainted with the First Amendment is that a black city councillor, speaking in a council meeting in Bristol, England, in remarks about a race-related issue before the council, was prosecuted for a criminal offense, and fined, because she (allegedly) used the word coconut. The minor point, of linguistic and philosophical rather than legal relevance, is that strictly she didn't use the word at all.

The councillor was Mrs. Shirley Brown, the first black Liberal Democrat elected to the Bristol city council. The debate was about a Conservative Party proposal in February 2009 to cut funds to the council's Legacy Commission, established in 2008 following the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire. The Legacy Commission's aim, ill-stated on this official site as being "to progress three priority areas; Cultural Representation, Education and Young People and Health and Well Being", involved projects ranging across adult community care, youth provision, housing, racial social awareness, and improving minority educational attainment. It was condemned by a Conservative councillor as a pointless spending spree.

The Conservative councillor for Stockwood, Jay Jethwa, who is of Indian descent, agreed with her party on this; having made it herself as a non-white immigrant, she said (a familiar refrain among conservative immigrants: "We simply got on with our lives and through sheer hard work and determination bettered ourselves and contributed to the cultural and economic development of this country"), she thought it made no sense to spend £750,000 of taxpayers' money on "righting the wrongs of slavery".

Then Mrs. Brown, when called upon by the Lord Mayor to address the council (in a very thinly peopled chamber: see her remarks on video here), offered a dissenting opinion, and prefaced her remarks by saying directly to Councillor Jethwa:

In our culture we have a word for you … we have a word which we use, and I'm sure many in this city would understand, it's coconut. And at the end of the day I just look at you as that. And the water's either worth throwing away or drinking it. [My transcription from the video; the Guardian had it slightly wrong. —GKP]

Jethwa was upset; she knew very well that the coconut reference was about being brown on the outside but white inside (and she said she felt it insulted not only her but white people too). She also recognized the metaphor of the often discarded coconut water as suggesting that her remarks were worthless.

But in the UK this tawdry little bit of small-time race-card-playing proceeded to become the subject of a police investigation, and ultimately a criminal prosecution for using "offensive and abusive language" (quite independently of Mrs. Brown's month of suspension from the council by its Standards Committee, and despite the fact that Mrs. Brown had long since apologised for her remark by email and in a formal letter sent to Councillor Jethwa).

The charge was racially aggravated harassment, the verdict was guilty, and the fine was about a thousand dollars (£620; The Guardian's report of the conviction (28 June 2010) is here). In Britain, even in a political debate, those freedom-of-speech liberties that Americans find in the Bill of Rights just don't exist.

The linguistic point is that Mrs. Brown did not use the term coconut. Although the Guardian sub-head said she "called [her] Asian opponent a 'coconut' during heated debate", she didn't. There was in fact no heated debate: she read prepared remarks quite calmly. And she observed that in her own culture there was a word for people like Jay Jethwa, and said what the word was, and said she saw it as an appropriate one in the context.

It's a small point, but there is a linguistic difference between telling someone that there is a word roadhog for people like them who drive aggressively and ignore other drivers' rights and safety, and actually saying "You're a roadhog." It's the difference between use and mention of the word in question.

Not that one would expect such subtleties to matter in court: in areas of the law such as verbal harassment, malicious defamation, and criminal libel, it is always the perceived intent that applies, not a narrow construal of the syntax and literal meaning. (The law of perjury is different; there you can get acquitted on a detail of the exact way you said something.) The legally relevant point was that Jay Jethwa was prepared to go into court and explain (weeping) to a judge that she understood the remark as insulting her in virtue of her race, and that others had understood it thus as well. It convinced the judge that an offense had been committed under the relevant Act. The crime lies in what the philosopher J. L. Austin would have called the perlocutionary effect, not in the details of the locutionary act.

My feelings about this incident are complex. There is little that I despise more than racism and racists, and I don't think racism gets any less contemptible when the racists are black, and I think Mrs. Brown was being not only offensive but also stupid. But on the other hand, I feel strongly about the virtues of free speech and open expression. We need to be able to talk frankly to each other about race and racial attitudes of all sorts, and deal with much deeper and nastier matters than whether an Indian Conservative is failing in her duty of solidarity with non-whites. And offensive attitudes will have to be accorded the same privilege as any other attitudes: you don't get a debate if you've decided in advance that one side is too offensive to be allowed to speak.

(We're just lucky in one way: "Human equality is a contingent fact of human history," as Steven Jay Gould used to say. It just so happens — and ethically it's a pleasant and fortunate discovery — that racists are not only morally reprehensible for their cruelty and hostility to other human beings, but also mistaken in what they believe about them. Just imagine the position we'd be in if Jews really were subhuman corruptors of Aryan civilization, or if Africa really had turned out to be populated by creatures with humanoid appearance but only simian intelligence. As the philosopher Jerry Fodor has been known to say about philosophical views that he hates, "I'd hate them a lot more if they were true.")

It seems to me that if you believe someone is a treacherous sell-out on a race issue you need to be able to express that view, forcefully, without breaking the law, if the notion of open debate on racial matters is to mean anything at all. And you shouldn't have to steer around legally imposed word taboos: they only lead to the sort of utterly absurd workarounds that Mark was recently cataloguing in these pages). So Shirley Brown's punishment should probably have been nothing more than that a lot of people would think less of her for stupidly dragging the issue of who had what skin color into a debate about spending council money on the Legacy Commission (as I said, I'm fully prepared to agree that Councillor Brown was being an obnoxious idiot in her choice of terms).

But the racial politics are not my main theme here. I'm simply bringing to your attention an informative news item about language use. With almost no national press discussion (searches like {Jethwa Brown Bristol} or {Jethwa coconut} now get zero hits on, the story having just faded away in two months), a sitting city council member has been criminally prosecuted and fined a thousand dollars for calmly mentioning a colloquial term for people with brown skin but white sympathies. Britain does not have the free speech that America does, so don't imagine otherwise; watch your tongue.


  1. Joyce Melton said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    Sophistry. If you say, "There is a word for people like you and that word is roadhog," then you have called someone a roadhog by circumlocution. No one is fooled. [As I said, a small point about use vs. mention. Of course no one was fooled; that's why there were slight inaccuracies in reporting what happened, and that's why the law doesn't make any exceptions for racial insults achieved by metalinguistic circumlocutions. —GKP]

    What the woman said was, "And at the end of the day I just look at you as that." And the clear referent of 'that' is the word coconut. It doesn't matter if it was said dispassionately or angrily, it's a deliberate slur and an insult, there is no other way to understand it. [Agreed. I said that. —GKP]

    Now, whether there should be a law about that is another question. [The question that I was raising. —GKP]

  2. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

    "Mrs. Brown did not use the term coconut." Er, she did. And she did call Mrs Jethwa a coconut. She said "…we have a word for you … it's coconut." You are playing with words if you claim that is not a direct insult. Perhaps you should be a lawyer! [Oh, dear; another long night of everyone making the same comment. As I said, a small point about use vs. mention. And already I've been called (i) a sophist, and (ii) a lawyer! (Perhaps I could bring a prosecution…) And by the way, Language Log does sometimes have fun playing with words, but in this piece I'm not doing that. I'm raising a question about overreach by UK criminal law, and as a side point I drew an important linguistic distinction. And it certainly is important: it permits us to distinguish between using a word in anger and discussing whether someone should. —GKP]

  3. Rubrick said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    It does seem misguided to punish those who make foolish, offensive remarks when the real danger to society is from those who would USE "PROGRESS" AS A TRANSITIVE VERB OMG OMG WHAT'S THE WORLD COMING TO???

  4. UK lawyer said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    In your opinion, the right to express your views "forcefully" outweighs the right not be publicly insulted on racial grounds. [That isn't exactly my opinion. The main problem is that the former right seems necessitated by any robust notion of public debate. The latter is contemptible and unwanted in public life, but the question is whether the UK has made a mistake by making even mild instances of it criminal. In this case it looks like the criminal law was being perverted into an instrument for political bickering. (Little did the Conservatives and the Lib Dems know that by the time the conviction was obtained they would be partners in a national government coalition!) —GKP]

    I disagree. There is too much shouting and insulting. [Yes, but not here; this was a calmly presented political insult, with a hint of a smile — or perhaps it was a smirk.—GKP] Substantial points can be made without a layer of stridency. The fact that Erskine May prevents MPs from using unParliamentary expressions (I don't know whether coconut is one of them) doesn't mean that MPs lack freedom of speech. [Very true. But I'm not at all opposed to standards of public behavior in deliberative bodies. Now let's return to the topic I actually raised. —GKP]

  5. Dan T. said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    There are people who try to import such PC nonsense into the United States, but fortunately our constitution is a decent weapon against this.

  6. Brian said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    While there may be a very small "linguistic" difference between saying "you are a coconut" and "there is a word coconut, and you are that", I think your argument holds absolutely no water (pun intended). You know as well as everyone else that Ms. Brown CALLED THE WOMAN A COCONUT!!! Whether or not we think that should be a criminal offense is another topic. But there is no REAL linguistic argument that she didn't "intend" to say that the woman is a coconut.

    [Brian, the argument that holds no water was not made here. Although I noted the use/mention distinction, I added that it was a minor point and would be irrelevant to a court case relating to defamation or harassment, and I added that Mrs. Brown "was being not only offensive but also stupid". Later I said it again: that she "was being an obnoxious idiot in her choice of terms". Do I need to say it three times before you are able to see that I have said it? —GKP]

  7. alyxandr said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    What interests me about this is the "…and white on the inside" construction. I'm familiar with "Radish Communists" (red on the outside, etc.), and, though it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, have tried to popularize "Cucumber Environmentalists" – i wonder how many other examples of this there are.

  8. octopod said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

    No, but there is a LINGUISTIC (not a legal) point to be made, and he is making it! Good lord, if you don't want a blog to look at the minutia of the use of language, why the hell are you all reading LanguageLog?

  9. Lane Greene said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    Dan, I wish that were true about America, but the famous "niggardly" case and many others mean that people lose their jobs or at the very least have their names dragged through the mud, even if they don't face prosecution in the way they might in Britain (or that Mark Steyn has in Canada).

    [The famous "niggardly" case was an astonishing injustice; but it raises utterly different issues from the ones here. There was no involvement of criminal law, and no use of a taboo word. It hardly bears mentioning in this context.—GKP]

  10. Lane Greene said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

    Also on PC in America:

  11. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

    Ms Brown didn't cause Ms Jethwa to become a coconut via her remarks. Ms Jethwa was a coconut whether Ms Brown noted it or not. This, I believe, was the source of Ms Jethwa's indignation: being outed. In any event, I am as disturbed by the criminal charge as Prof Pullum (and Ms Brown).

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

    Does GKP's use/mention distinction, however subtle, work at all for the separate sentence "And at the end of the day I just look at you as that," where it's clear that "that" = "a coconut"? Maybe we should just be grateful that Mrs. Brown's ever so slightly indirect phrasing was not described as an instance of the passive voice.

    Re UK lawyer's comment, I suppose I would not find this troubling at all if Mrs. Brown had merely been sanctioned for unparliamentary (or whatever the municipal equivalent would be) language by her colleagues on the city council rather than criminally prosecuted. I think elected legislative bodies here in the US can and do discipline their own members for inappropriate-in-context language on the floor, even where such language could not constitutionally be the basis for a criminal prosecution.

    [I fully agree. The suspension from being a councillor was merited — the Standards Committee said so. Perfectly appropriate. She was unforgivably rude, on camera, in the council chamber, during public discussion. J. W. Brewer correctly returns us to the larger issue that the more careless readers are failing to address: should this have been a police matter? Should she have been dragged into court on a criminal charge? —GKP]

  13. SlideSF said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    I think a clearer distinction between mention vs. use would be to state that there is a word for people who come from other cultures but cater to the wishes of the dominant white society, and that word is coconut. But the introduction of the expression "like you" the distinction, though extant linguistically, is so minimal as to be insignificant. If the statement stands on one side of the mention/use distinction (which probably has a strict definitional boundary and no "shades of gray"), it casts a very long shadow onto the other.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

    "And the water's either worth throwing away or drinking it." What's that it doing there? Is this anything like a gapless relative? (After that, we can do the position of either.)

  15. Brian said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

    I hate to get overly responsive, but I think I see where you may have stumbled with the use/mention distinction.

    Ms. Brown "mentioned" the word and then went on to "use" it (although, very cleverly without "saying" it). There's a word, "wrong", which means incorrect. And I think you were.

  16. A mathematician said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

    Meaning 16.b of 'use' in the OED:-

    To employ or give utterance to (words, phrases, etc.); to say, utter.

    It seems to my lay brain that, in a very relevant sense, if not in the strict linguistical sense, she therefore did 'use' the word. But you write things like

    she (allegedly) used the word

    (my emphasis), which suggests that you deny the validity of the non-linguistic sense. I presume you don't mean to do so, but that's how it comes across to me.

  17. Daniel H said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

    @Brian etc.

    Sure, in terms of speaker intent and effect on listener the distinction is very small if not nonexistent. In terms of relevance to linguistics, I think the distinction is more noteworthy.

    However, in this case, I think noting the distinction was mainly an excuse to write the greater blog post around it. In the context, the distinction is only a minor point (as stated in the first paragraph of the post). The two greater issues at hand are (1) maybe legal action was a bit harsh in this case, and (2) limitations on free speech can make it difficult to speak frankly about issues of race relations.

  18. Daniel H said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 7:11 pm


    I think the main point was that maybe legal action was a bit harsh in this case and that this brings to light problems with British free speech laws. A secondary point was that limitations on free speech can make it difficult to speak frankly about issues of race relations.

  19. Gordon Campbell said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

    The swallow may fly south with the sun or the house martin or the plover may seek warmer climes in winter, yet these are not strangers to our land.

    It's not really a linguistic issue; it's a simple question of weight ratios.

  20. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

    @A mathematician: I agree completely. She used the word, in the ordinary sense of "use", even though she mentioned it in the sense of the use/mention distinction — much as how π is a very odd number, even though it's actually not an integer (and therefore neither even nor odd).

    Dr. Zwicky gave several examples like this in this entry from July '08.

  21. Keshav Srinivasan said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    This use-mention distinction is fascinating. I wonder, what counts as a use and what counts as a mention in this context? Consider the following sentences:

    1. "Hi, coconut!"
    2. "Hi, person who is a coconut!"
    3. "Hi, person who some would refer to as a coconut!"
    4. "Hi, person to whom the word coconut correctly applies!"
    5. "Hi, person I see as a coconut!"
    6. "Jethra, you are a coconut."
    7. "Jethra is a coconut."
    8. "Jethra, some would refer to you as a coconut."
    9. "Jethra, the word coconut correctly applies to you."
    10. "Jethra, I see you as a coconut."

    Is it correct to say that 3,4,8, and 9 are mentions, while the rest are uses?

    Apart from the linguistics of use vs. mention, I believe that it would be fully accurate to characterize Councilor Brown's remarks as "She called Jethra a coconut." Calling someone "X" does not only refer to shouting out "Hi, X!" It can also mean ascribing the appellation "X" to that individual. And in her remarks she did indeed ascribe the word "coconut" to Jethra, and thus called him a coconut. Case closed.

  22. James D said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

    It's clearly silly that the police got involved. Ultimately, the ridicule Cllr Brown has received for her idiotic comments means much more than the absurd waste of court time. If she stands for election again, her opponents' leaflets will be priceless.

    But these standards committees and boards and ombudsmen are a sinister affront to democracy: there's a case going on in Cardiff about a councillor who jokingly described Scientology as "stupid" on Twitter. By all means, let people vote against councillors who make nasty comments; by all means introduce recall elections; but it's worse than any idiotic comment to have censorious New-Labour-appointees skulking in star chambers preventing our elected representatives from representing us. It looks and feels like a gerrymander against all political dissent.

  23. George said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

    Is 'coconut' a Britishism? I have not heard that term before. The equivalent I am familiar with is 'Oreo.' In fact, this got a white University of Florida president ousted after using it in reference to an African-American chancellor.

    "I don't think racism gets any less contemptible when the racists are black"

    I have a little different view on this. Although neither is justified, I don't think there is parity. Racism as exercised by a powerful majority is not the same as that with a much less powerful minority. The former has led to real harm (see slavery, Jim Crow, etc.), where the other is relatively benign.

    [Racism is never benign. And the differential effect of hegemony by one or the other group is an independent effect. In South Africa under apartheid land was taken from blacks by whites because the blacks were black, and in present-day Zimbabwe land is taken from whites by blacks because the whites are white. Morally evil and legally unconscionable in both cases. It's very common to find people saying that for whites to hate blacks (because of their race) is wicked but for blacks to hate whites (because of their race) is justifiable. I don't accept that at all. But hey, this isn't Racism Log, this is Language Log. —GKP]

  24. ShadowFox said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

    Another word–used quite well in that other pariah's (Oliver Stone) Salvador–of similar distinction is "watermelon". Although, for obvious reasons, it's quite easy to apply it to the Greens, other centrist and liberals don't usually come across as watermelons. Still, the word is in use. And, in fact, I've heard it in used in place of "coconut".

    … which suggests that you deny the validity of the non-linguistic sense.

    A Mathematician seems to miss the point that there are at least 16 other meaning of the word described in the OED (actually a lot more, but the reference to 16.b. only implies 16 others), so the "allegedly" may apply to a different use of "use".

    Finally–and I wanted to say this for a long time–I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts!

  25. A mathematician said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 10:08 pm


    …the "allegedly" may apply to a different use of "use".

    In that case I choose 10b.

    Back in the real world, if you're telling someone that they're wrong (and GKP does seem to be saying that someone (the 'alleger') is wrong), then you should give them the benefit of the doubt. In this case, that would mean assuming that they meant sense 16b, which makes perfect sense in this context.

  26. Mark Mandel said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

    The minor point, of more interest to linguists and philosophers of language, is that strictly she didn't use the word at all. — In our strict sense of the word "use". As you have essentially noted (and as others have pointed out stridently) for the rhetorical purposes of the exchange and in the terms of that register, she said her opponent was a coconut while reserving the right to say that technically she had not done so. To some people the difference, so far from being a non-"use", augments the insult with a nasty smirk.

    [I fully agree. And by the way, she does smirk. Watch the video. I do not like what I have seen of this woman. —GKP]

  27. John Cowan said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

    Okay, I'll address your major point, even though you already know what I think (namely that I agree with you entirely). To prevent such travesties the U.K. needs a Bill of Rights with teeth, which means it needs a written constitution to which Parliament is subordinate, and a High Court (call it what you will) whose job it is to evaluate legislation against that constitution and declare it ineffective if the constitution is violated. All well and good to get rid of the Divine Right of Kings, but replacing it with the Divine Right of Parliaments wasn't that big an improvement, not when Parliament can't be trusted not to take the bit between its teeth. This is by no means a matter of importing the American way (though we did have it first): every other country on Earth subordinates its government to its constitution, not the other way about.

  28. Tim Martin said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 1:58 am

    @Prof Pullum: "Do I need to say it three times before you are able to see that I have said it?"

    You keep bringing up the use/mention distinction, but what people are disagreeing with you on is your use of a third word, "call." Given the way most of us define "call," Brown called Jethwa a coconut, and she did this without using the word. If you disagree with that, you can present your definition of "call." Or you can say you don't care because it wasn't your main point. But you can't say you've addressed it when what you did address was use/mention, not call.

    [There's a legitimate question about the truth conditions of She called him a coconut. But a pure and simple instance would be saying You're a coconut!, and from the Guardian subhead you might think that had happened. I just noticed when I viewed the video that there was no shouting match and no direct calling of names, and the only occurrence of the word was in a classic context for mention rather than use ("In our culture we have a word, and it's ‘coconut’…" — a metalinguistic remark). The result has been a slew of comments (I have deleted a few of the more abusive ones; read the comments policy) insisting that I'm splitting hairs to make excuses for Mrs. Brown. I'm not. I'm against Mrs.Brown; I think she was in the wrong. —GKP]

  29. Joyce Melton said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 2:52 am

    Interesting that you interpreted my earlier remark as me calling you a sophist when in fact, I merely mentioned sophistry.

    [On the off chance that you're being serious, let me remind you that you simply said "Sophistry." That's much like saying "Nonsense!" or "Idiot!" (I don't know how the sophists got such a bad rep), and it was a use. You didn't say anything about the word; you used the word. That said, let me stress that I agree that Cllr. Brown insulted Cllr. Jethwa. I do not understand why so many of my careless readers imagine that I think otherwise. —GKP]

  30. Jonathan said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 2:56 am

    Any technical meaning of "use" which doesn't include the use of the pronoun "that" referring to the just-mentioned word seems pretty obviously not relevant, even tangentially, to any legal allegations. The same goes for any meaning of "call [someone] an X" which doesn't include statements of the form "I look at you as [an X]." The metaphor itself was even used more extensively.

    [Perhaps you did not read enough to notice that the point about it not being relevant to the legal case was my observation. And yes, on the spur of the moment Mrs. Brown elaborated the metaphor with an ill-phrased reference to the liquid inside the coconut being of little value. That was all part of the insult. And (I wonder how many times I will need to say this?) she was indeed insulting. —GKP]

    As for the real point, I have trouble understanding this conviction, and I'm not American. How is this action "a course of conduct" (which "must involve at least two occasions", not "reasonable" (at least in terms of it's effect on the hearer – the underlying argument that it is "white" to cancel this funding is another matther that really shouldn't be before courts), or connected with a demonstration of "hostility based on the victim's membership … of a racial group"? Even referring to Jethra's race was stupid, but the hostility was based on political stances.

    [Yes; quite apart from the issues that I raise, it seems likely that this was a miscarriage of justice even if the law is taken at face value as a good and worthy one. Nobody could seriously see this as threatening and hostile behavior to a person of another race, which is what the law is ineptly trying to ban. It was petty, unpleasant, needling during a political spat, and the criminal law should stay out of such matters completely. —GKP]

  31. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 3:44 am

    Maybe "there's a word for people like you, etc." is not seen the same way in the US as in the UK. I'm from Ireland, and as far as I'm concerned, this phrase practically only crops up as a way of insulting someone.

    [Sigh. One more time, let me state that my view is that Cllr. Brown did insult Cllr. Jethwa, with a mean, slightly devious, veiled reference to being brown-skinned but siding with the whites. People keep telling me that an insult took place. I know that! But it was done in a way that, in the technical terms of philosophy of language, was accomplished through a mention of the word without a use of it (minor point); and it was the subject of a criminal prosecution that suggests to me that UK law overreaches on the issue of "hate speech". Now, will people please stop using these columns to tell me that an insult was conveyed in that council chamber? —GKP]

    That aside, there's a difference between the extreme understanding of the right to free speech, in the form of the 1st amendment, and the general European tradition of limiting that right in certain ways, and then this particular British example. I do think the UK has gone overboard in recent years in trying to codify political correctness. But a 1st-amendment-type approach is not the only alternative.

    I do not see the kind of industrial-scale propagation of big lies that is practiced in the US, regularly achieving a large influence on politics, as worthy of imitation.

  32. andrew c said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 4:33 am

    What struck me was that immediately after boasting about how she had just 'got on with it', Ms Jethwa not only failed to get on with it, but scuttled off to the police for redress. That simply exposed her as cowardly hypocrite irrespective of her internal colour.

  33. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 5:38 am

    "People keep telling me that an insult took place. I know that! But it was done in a way that, in the technical terms of philosophy of language, was accomplished through a mention of the word without a use of it (minor point);"

    Last time I looked, pragmatics was part of linguistics. Technically, this was a mention. But the communicative purpose of this particular "mention" phrase is, if anything, an aggravation of the "calling" function and not an attenuation of it (at least, it is in the UK). [Agree entirely. —GKP] Effectively, it's a use of the word. [No it isn't; not if we are employing the use/mention distinction familiar from both pragmatics and philosophy of language. —GKP] That's the nobody is discussing whether the woman was called a coconut. She was indeed called a coconut, with bells on. [In a slightly sneaky metalinguistic way that one would be correct to ignore when considering the perlocutionary effect. —GKP]

    We agree that the UK law overreaches, but the use vs. mention point has no relevance to that, because hardly anyone from the UK would understand what was said as anything but intentionally calling the woman a coconut.

    The reasons the law overreaches are possibly a) something to do with privileged speech in an elected assembly b) the silliness of penalizing an insult of a sort that, if you tried to enforce its illegality rigorously, would choke up the entire justice system (every lunch break in every schoolyard in the land would yield dozens of cases; and as for the construction sites!).

    But I suggest your linguistic technicality and the 1st Amendment (which I consider just as anomalous on the other extreme than the restrictive UK law) are both not relevant.

  34. h. s. gudnason said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    Sounds like the end of the second part of Goethe's Faust: Faust says [paraphrasing], "Oh, could I but say to this day, 'Do not pass, for you are so beautiful.'" Mephistopheles calls the bet ended, because Faust has said the magic words. But in the end Faust's soul is saved, because he'd only said the phrase as part of an optative construction.

    [I can't find the passage you're referring to in the file at Which are the "magic words"? —GKP]

  35. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    Effectively, it's a use of the word. [No it isn't; not if we are employing the use/mention distinction familiar from both pragmatics and philosophy of language. —GKP]

    I meant "effectively" as in its practical effects, as opposed to "technically" as in its classification as a calling-by-mentioning, the latter being undisputed by me.

  36. Kaushik Janardhanan said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 7:27 am

    Amongst the many commenters here, being the most eligible to be called a coconut, I claim the right to ask the really serious linguistic question on this whole issue.

    Mr. Pullum, did she actually use the passive, or not?

  37. Clare said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    Reading this I thought: where's Derrida when you need him? Here's a distinction that's crying out for deconstruction!

    But maybe that's not necessary, maybe Austin and Searle *do just that work* with speech act theory. I thought they were on the same page in showing that by mentioning words you were using them (relevant to this post), and by using words you were mentioning them (not as relevant, but interesting).

    But of course there are no new thoughts and Derrida did indeed get there first — making a delightful parody of the distinction — but as part of a scathing criticism of Searle! They engaged in a rather bitter debate in the 1970s and 1980s. Fascinating, fascinating stuff.

    Mark Alfino (1991) "Another Look at the Derrida-Searle Debate"
    Philosophy & Rhetoric, 24(2), 143-152

  38. Dan K said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    Of course everyone recognizes the distinction between calling someone a coconut and mentioning a coconut quite readily. There is a clever shorthand people have for describing the mention of a cocunut in a manner which makes it clear that someone is being compared to a coconut. That shorthand is exemplified in sentences like, "X called Y a coconut," even though we all of course recognize that no one was called anything. Although sadly "X called Y a coconut" also has another meaning (a more literal meaning), and thus could be viewed as a confusing shortcut, it turns out to cause very few problems, except for a handful of linguists (and you don't see many of them around these days).

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    @GKP: I think that version of Faust is incomplete. This one shows Faust mentioning, not using, the words of the bet (which I think are Verweile doch! du bist so schön). If the text says explicitly that the use-mention distinction let him get away without losing his soul, someone else will have to tell you where.

  40. Diane said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 1:01 pm


    You seem to think that many of the commenters are misunderstanding your point about the use/mention distinction. You don't seem to have considered the possibility that they understand you just fine, and simply don't agree with you.

    [I've considered it; but people keeping telling me things that I've already said, as if they thought I didn't believe them. We all agree that Brown insulted Jethwa, and intended to. And we all agree that she uttered the word coconut. I'm saying (i) what she actually said in the clause containing a mention of the word was about the word, and only in the clause after that did she say it would be appropriate for Jethwa, though in that clause the word didn't appear. That means she didn't use it in the insult, the narrow technical sense. That was the minor point (the major one being about whether any use of language of this sort, with no threat of harm or hatred, should be a criminal offense). Now, what don't people agree with me about? —GKP]

  41. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    Is the mentioning of Derrida a special manifestation of Godwin's law for linguists?

  42. greg said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    As I'm not a linguist, I fully admit to being unfamiliar with the use/mention distinction in technical terms. But from what I've been able to gather, providing information about a word and in doing so saying the word is a "mention". And following it with a sentence in which the word is substituted by a pronoun is not a "use". So because it wasn't "And at the end of the day I just look at you as [a coconut]" except by implication, it wasn't a linguistic "use". Is this correct?

  43. chris said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    ISTM that the source of the disagreement between Geoff and several commenters is that "The word 'coconut' describes Jethwa" is *semantically* equivalent to "Jethwa is a coconut", so it is a bit bizarre to say that the first is mentioning "coconut" and the second is using it, when the meaning of both depends on the meaning of "coconut" in a way that, say, "The word 'coconut' has seven letters" does not.

    That makes it somewhat of a breakdown of the use-mention distinction, IMO — when you're invoking the semantics of a word you *are* using it, aren't you?

    [This is a good observation. Quite right: when you mention a word and draw attention to its meaning, you are basically able to get its effect but with a narrowly technical (and rather empty) sort of deniability. That's what Cllr. Brown did. —GKP]

  44. Jon Lennox said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    chris: No, I don't think so. For instance, the sentence "'Coconut' is a term for Indians who side with whites" is clearly a mention, not a use, and I'd even be inclined to say that the sentence "Brown called Jewtha a Coconut" mentions "Coconut", rather than using it.

    That said, I agree that Brown's speech was a use, not a mention, of "Coconut", in all but the strictest syntactic sense.

  45. Mark Dowson said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

    GKP has made his position (which I agree with) abundantly and repeatedly clear, so it seems unnecessary to pursue fruitless arguments about it. But something seems to have been missed. The discussion is not really about the use or mention of a word, where there is a clear distinction:
    The word "Fred" has four letters (mention)
    Fred is my friend (use)
    Instead it is about the use or mention of a proposition, in this case "You are a coconut".

    Consider the following (chosen for deliberate effect):

    The actions of the Taliban are justified (proposition)

    Some people say that the actions of the Taliban are justified (proposition about a (mentioned) proposition)

    Some people say that the actions of the Taliban are justified . I agree. (statement about the truth value of a proposition mentioned in a proposition).

    And lest anyone continues to have fantasies about how the US constitution protects against abuses possible under UK law, consider which of the above statements, if published, might just open the writer to a charge of material support for terrorism

  46. Katherine said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    "It seems to me that if you believe someone is a treacherous sell-out on a race issue you need to be able to express that view, forcefully, without breaking the law, if the notion of open debate on racial matters is to mean anything at all."

    Funny, because you just expressed that view without using any slurs (and thus not breaking the law).

    [No, this is a confusion. If by "that view" you mean the view that someone is a treacherous sell-out on a race issue, then I referred to the view but did not express the view. (In the present case, for example, I don't agree with the view at all: the notion that because Cllr. Jethwa has brown skin she has a moral duty to support the spending of hundreds of thousands of pounds on the Legacy Commission is absurd, and demeaning.) There really is a problem here: people do not seem to understand distinctions like using a word versus mentioning its properties, or between characterizing a view and expressing it. —GKP]

    In New Zealand, I've only heard "coconut" used to describe Pacific Islanders, though I know very little about it's use as I don't tend to hang out with either Pacific Islanders or racists.

  47. Jonathan said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 3:03 am

    Well, I'm a bit lost here. I understood your point that your distinction was not directly relevant to the legal case. However, not only did you begin and end suggesting that the distinction was relevant to the outcome, you quite clearly implied that it was relevant to the accuracy of an alleged allegation and the reporting of the case. That's what I don't agree with, and I think it's fairly straightforward.

    [Once more: the fact that she contrived to mention coconut rather than use it makes some of the headlines and reports technically inaccurate; but this is a minor point of linguistic analysis, and it is typical of the British laws in the sort of domain that they would not consider it the slightest bit relevant — perlocutionary effect is what matters. I hope that's clear enough. But it probably isn't. —GKP]

    While it may be interesting that she was insulting by mentioning a word, referring to it, but apparently not technically using it, that alone doesn't help me make sense of your comments. My problem certainly isn't that I didn't read enough – if anything, it was your last paragraph and responses to commentors that made me think you had something wrong.

    Apart from that, if we are talking about extremely narrow technical definitions, is there a simpler/better way to describe using a pronoun to refer to a mentioned word?

    Katherine, where do you get the idea that not using "slurs" is relevant to whether the law was broken or not?

  48. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 5:18 am

    when you mention a word and draw attention to its meaning, you are basically able to get its effect but with a narrowly technical (and rather empty) sort of deniability.

    Again, it seems like you are just deaf to the way this "there's a word for people like you" formulation is used on the east bank of the pond. There's no practical deniability at all, whatsoever. In fact this I'm sure most people find this MORE insulting than if she had just straight out said "you, my friend, are one **** coconut". Deniability can't have been in her mind, and nobody would ever accept it.

  49. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 5:23 am

    There really is a problem here: people do not seem to understand distinctions like using a word versus mentioning its properties, or between characterizing a view and expressing it.

    Well, you know the one about the new prison inmate and the joke book. It's not the jokes, it's the way you tell them ;-)

  50. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    The limited time I have available for dealing with comments, and the steadily increasing tendency for the comments to breach the Language Log comments policy, either by wandering off-topic (we reached the point of someone raising the matter of whether mentally ill people should be executed) or being impolite (I have deleted some hostility and abuse) or not reading the original post to the end (people were pointing things out to me that I actually said in so many words), have led me to the conclusion that comments on this post should be closed now. So I have done that. I thank you all for your input, including those who insisted that I am utterly wrong or that I wasn't even intelligible on this thorny topic of race, free speech, and the relevance of semantic and pragmatic analysis, to which it is quite likely that I will never return again.

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