The Hokey Cokey as a hate crime

« previous post | next post »

One scarcely needs to comment at all sometimes. I am most grateful to Victor Steinbok for alerting Language Log to an article in the Daily Telegraph (the link will be given below) about how singing the old song "The Hokey Cokey" could be defined as a hate crime, at least in Scotland. You might like to reflect for a minute, before I give you the link, on how this song could conceivably stir up hatred against any racial, religious, ethnic, or cultural group. A sample of the lyrics (you can read the whole of the lyrics here):

You put your left arm in, your left arm out
In out, in out, you shake it all about
You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn around
That's what it's all about
Whoa-o the Hokey Cokey
Whoa-o the Hokey Cokey
Whoa-o the Hokey Cokey
Knees bent, arms stretched
Raa raa raa…

Think a while: how could those words whip up hate and inter-communal strife, endangering the public order?

Now here is the link to the Daily Telegraph piece so you can check your guess. Hint: Glasgow has two soccer teams. Against my better judgment I have opened comments. But do not write anything that would offend any racial, religious, ethnic, or cultural group. Language Log loves and respects all racial, religious, ethnic, and cultural groups. (Well, most.) We absolutely will not put up with intolerance here.


  1. Florence said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 8:00 am

    Let's just ban language, it's just offensive altogether, don't you think?

    We have a children's song in France that goes "Malbrough s'en va-t'en guerre", and it took me years to realize that it must have been written during one of the numerous wars we had with England. A quick Google search confirms this. The Malbrough in question was apparently John Churchill, duke of Marlborough (1650-1722). I hope this hateful song is banned soon. Imagine all those years where children in our schools (including me) mocked the poor Duke.

    It's a good thing there are people watchful enough to put an end to all this. Where would we be if anyone could sing about anything? I shudder to think of it.

  2. peter said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 8:05 am

    For non-British readers, it is worth remembering that Roman Catholics still do not have full equality under British law. A Catholic may not become head of state nor become the spouse of the head of state nor spouse to the heir to the throne, and former Catholic priests are still legally forbidden to sit in the House of Commons, even if elected to be Members of Parliament. These laws do not apply to adherents of any other religion, nor to non-believers. In addition to such legal restrictions, Catholics in British cities with major populations of Irish immigrants and their descendants (Liverpool, Glasgow) still have to endure bigoted public taunting by Protestant extremists in their annual Orange Day parades.

    [Peter makes the most serious point: Is the singing of a song that mocks the Catholic mass a part of a wider pattern of anti-Catholic prejudice that at its worst is actually abusive and discriminatory? When I point to the putative support for the strange idea of trying to ban this familiar old party song (often sung by long lines of drunken party-goers as they dance from room to room sticking their left leg in and their left leg out and shaking it all about) I'm certainly not seeking to promote anti-Catholic prejudice. Still less defend frankly unacceptable anti-Catholic laws, or support the Glasgow Rangers team. Somehow we have to find a way to make room for joking about racial or national or ethnic or religious groups. Otherwise we won't have truly funny works like Tom Lehrer's wonderful song "The Vatican Rag" (alluded to by someone below), and the world will be poorer. Even Tom's "National Brotherhood Week" might be under threat ("Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, and the Catholics hate the Protestants / And the Hindus hate the Muslims, and everyone hates the Jews"). We want to be able to laugh about our differences and enjoy parodies and satire and cartoons and SNL sketches. We can't lose that: it's part of our human birthright. Suppose they do sing a song that mocks the Mass at a Rangers vs. Celtic game: it's only a song being sung in the stands at a soccer game. Deal with it. And yet… we wish the nastier excesses could be made to go away. How do we find the balance, in a free yet just society? I do not know. This is Language Log, not Political Utopia Log. —GKP]

  3. vavatch said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 8:06 am

    Looks like the usual glasgow stramash to me.

    I enjoy the irony of people's arguments though — "Let's hope the Act of Succession is never repealed if this is the bigoted way Catholics behave", or "This is typical of the Catholic SNP separatists", or similar.

    But it strongly has the look of a manufactured story — I can't find much mention of it outside the Torygraph. I suspect a journalist got bored and made a few phone calls asking for comments and certain foolish MSPs engaged their mouths and not their brains, this is then followed by outrage and links to the story.

    This is what comes of Scotland's bizarre religiously streamed education system.

  4. leahwrenn said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 8:10 am

    I'd learned it (in the states) as the Hokey Pokey.

  5. language hat said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 8:20 am

    it is worth remembering that Roman Catholics still do not have full equality under British law

    It may be worth remembering in general, as a matter of awareness of the world at large, but I'm not sure why it's worth remembering in this context, since the song has nothing at all to do with Catholicism.

  6. Ray Girvan said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 8:34 am

    Difficult. It stinks of folk etymology, with no solid evidence for an origin as a satire on Catholic ritual. OTOH, if that origin and intent has become widely believed by both sides in a partisan dispute, there's no practical difference in that context from it being true. Ever seen Bill Bailey's Kraftwerk version?

  7. fev said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 8:46 am

    Does "are said to be discussing on internet forums the possibility of getting round the ban" have just the faintest touch of too-good-to-check-out? Like, the Torygraph is getting through a slow week by making stuff up again?

  8. Chris said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 9:06 am

    I've heard it as hokey pokey, too, but doesn't that just strengthen the putative connection to hocus pocus / hoc est corpus?

    And since there has indeed been some pretty awful anti-Catholic sentiment in England (and other places), I don't find the idea implausible. (Although of course it would be nice to see some real evidence, since the song itself doesn't have explicit anti-Catholic lyrics.)

  9. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 9:07 am

    It never occurred to me that the conjuror's sham-Latin "hocus pocus" could be based on "hoc est corpus meum"; once the idea is suggested I must say it does seem quite plausible.

    Doesn't it seem likely that, if this is so, the expression would in fact be more likely to have been coined by someone familar with the Latin mass. ie a Catholic? And it wouldn't even work as sham Latin unless it reminded the audience of some genuine Latin, so that it would presuppose at least a substantial Catholic element in the crowd too.

    Genuinely pious Catholics mostly seem quite secure enough in their faith to be perfectly unfazed by this sort of thing.

    Ray Girvan has a good point though. It seems parallel to the Eskimo dislike of the term "Eskimo" even though it doesn't mean "Eater of raw flesh" at all, or the American Indian agitation about "squaw" even though it has nothing to do with any Iroquois word for "vagina". Once people start taking genuine offence at an innocuous word or whatever, I suppose, reluctantly, you have to start avoiding it in contexts where it may truly offend. Shouldn't prevent us from loudly pointing out the error, though.

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 9:19 am

    Quite. Another example: the controversy a few years ago when the story was floating about that nitty-gritty had racist connotations via some etymological yarn about it meaning the unimportant detritus, including the slaves themselves, in the hold of a slave ship.

  11. Alastair Scott said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 9:35 am

    Well, I was brought up and lived for over 20 years in the area under question, and remember this song being sung at school; there were no "sinister connotations" – or any connotations at all – and, if anything, I would have assumed it was Victorian and connected with the music hall (which liked a good knees-up :)

    It's a pity we are a few months from April 1 … the story would be more appropriate then. Certainly "hoc est enim corpus meum" -> "oh hokey cokey" seems contrived in the extreme.

  12. Kim Belcher said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 10:12 am

    @David Eddyshaw:

    Although the derivation of "hocus pocus" from "hoc est enim corpus meum" isn't definitely established, that derivation was proclaimed by anti-Catholic Protestant preachers in their sermons, books, and letters. Such people had considerable knowledge of Latin and of the mass, but certainly did not consider themselves Catholic.

    To be honest, I'm Catholic and think this is all very funny. But then, I'm also American and never considered the idea that "hokey pokey" (as I sing it with my preschooler here) had anything to do with hocus pocus, Latin, or Catholicism. It does seem plausible.

    I'm not planning to stop singing the song, even if somebody does find some solid evidence that it was originally anti-Catholic.

  13. Dan T. said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 10:56 am

    There was a U.S. lawsuit not too long ago alleging that the use of "Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo" (by an airline flight attendant) was racist because of an obsolete version of this rhyme that included an epithet.

  14. Breffni said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 11:07 am

    OED: "The notion that hocus pocus was a parody of the Latin words used in the Eucharist, rests merely on a conjecture thrown out by Tillotson" – namely, "TILLOTSON Serm. xxvi. (1742) II. 237 In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation". Tillotson was writing more than 100 years after the OED´s first attested use, so that´s one dicey looking etymology.

  15. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 11:13 am

    Actually, Alastair, the article was only one week early for Holy Innocents, which–through some chain of association I can't begin to comprehend–has become the equivalent of April Fool's in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries. (Of course, that's just the kind of hokey-cokey rubbish no decent Tory would ever have any truck with.)

  16. finlayson said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 11:26 am

    Wow, I thought this was going to be offensive because the final shout of "Ra" is a popular name for those much-missed funsters the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army (IRA), often saluted with chants of "Up the Ra!" So really it's offensive to both Protestants and Catholics, as well as to lovers of good music and haters of bad dancing and stupid party games.

  17. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 11:32 am

    There's a Wikipedia page on the song/dance, with some coverage of the current story (and a link to a 1999 Telegraph article suggesting a connection to ridicule of Catholics). The page also notes that the song/dance is generally known as the Hokey Cokey in the U.K., the Hokey Pokey in the U.S. (and, I believe, Australia), and the Hokey Tokey in New Zealand.

    On the "hocus pocus" story: "This theory led Scottish politician Michael Matheson in 2008 to urge police action "against individuals who use it to taunt Catholics.” This claim by Matheson was deemed ridiculous by fans from both sides of the Old Firm (the Glasgow football teams Celtic and Rangers) and calls have been put out on fans' forums for both sides to join together to sing the song on 27th Dec 2008 at Ibrox [Stadium]."

    Video of the Hokey Cokey performed on bagpipes at Ibrox here.

    Googling on {Ibrox "Hokey Cokey"} will get you some responses.

    I haven't found any accounts of the Hokey Cokey actually being used to taunt Catholics, by the way.

  18. Theodore said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 11:42 am

    I guessed wrong. I thought it would be offensive to the physically handicapped. Also interesting to note the non-US variants (with which I wasn't previously familiar) both involve words that would be considered drug slang in the US: "hokey cokey" "hokey tokey".

  19. J. L. Bell said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    According to Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, the "Hokey Pokey/Cokey" song isn't even a century old.

  20. R Hayes said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 11:54 am

    Here is a link to the lyrics for "Hokey Pokey (The Ice Cream Song)", by Richard Thompson (an English songwriter of Scottish extraction), 1975.

    It's kind of licentious.

  21. Bobbie said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    Sounds like the recent brouhaha about the use of the word picnic, objected to by some supposedly "well-informed" African-Americans as having a meaning related to lynch parties…..

  22. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

    An altogether more chilling literary reference to the hokey-cokey comes in Tony Harrison's powerful Sonnets for August 1945, in which he describes
              the bonfire's heat
    above the Rule Britannias and the bobbing heads
    of the VJ hokey-cokey in our street
    which he witnessed as a child. [VJ=Victory in Japan.] There are images of fire throughout this sequence of sonnets.

  23. Alastair Scott said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

    @J L Bell: the point Michael Quinion makes about hokey-cokey's relationship to "… Italians who had fled poverty in their own country (and sold dodgy ice-cream to make ends meet) …" sounds plausible – I am reminded by my girlfriend, who is half Scots-Italian – as displaced Italians settled disproportionately in Scotland during the later 19th and early 20th century.

    Thus the remark would seem to refer to their ice-cream and not their religion!

  24. peter said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

    language hat said: "It may be worth remembering in general, as a matter of awareness of the world at large, but I'm not sure why it's worth remembering in this context, since the song has nothing at all to do with Catholicism."

    It [the legal inequality of Catholics in Britain] is worth remembering in this context because it has been a matter of some public debate in recent years, particular in Scotland. The debate has included allegations by a leading Scottish composer, James MacMillan, of continuing discrimination against Catholics in Scottish society, a public statement by the then Prime Minister of Eire (the Republic of Ireland) that he was unable to visit Protestant parts of Scotland for reasons of personal security, and included a concerted, but thus far unsuccessful, public campaign by Scotland's Catholic Bishops to have all anti-Catholic laws repealed. The words of the song may have nothing to do with religion or with Catholicism. However, the claims in the newspaper story about Catholic sensitivities over the words of the song and about deliberate Protestant use of the song to taunt Catholics, even if false, are only too plausible to anyone familiar with recent Scottish politics.

  25. Rosie Redfield said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    More innocent ears than those of R. Hayes think that the Richard Thompson Hokey Pokey song is about buying ice cream from a street vendor.

    I did some (amateur) research on this a while back, and found out that 'hokey pokey' is a traditional 19th century british term for ice cream sold on the street. I don't know if there's any link to the hokey cokey/hokey pokey dance song. (There's now also a New Zealand ice cream flavour called hokey pokey.)

  26. Prof. Bleen said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 10:01 pm

    I suppose Tom Lehrer's "Vatican Rag" is right out, then.

  27. grannyg said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 12:12 am

    Excuse my weak Latin, learned from the Mass long ago, but shouldn't it be "hic est…"?

    [(myl) No. The relevant passage in the Latin mass is "Hoc est enim Corpus meum". The text and the choreography are here. Corpus is neuter. ]

  28. baylink said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 1:01 am

    Time to trans-substantiate.

    Doesn't the variance in the words itself put paid to the theories propounded about links to Catholicism?

  29. John Cowan said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 2:01 am

    What strikes me as curious is that "hokey cokey" sounds more like "hoc est corpus" than "hocus pocus" does.

  30. Hans Lundahl said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 4:57 am

    "Doesn't it seem likely that, if this is so, the expression would in fact be more likely to have been coined by someone familar with the Latin mass. ie a Catholic? And it wouldn't even work as sham Latin unless it reminded the audience of some genuine Latin, so that it would presuppose at least a substantial Catholic element in the crowd too."

    There was a time when all adult Protestants in any Protestant country (somewhat differring times for the various countries) had been Catholics hearing the mass in their childhood. There was also a time when any Freemason or "laïc" in Catholic countries had been a Catholic in his childhood. Even after those times are gone there is the fact of general curiosity even across lines of very tense Catholic – Anti-Catholic relations.

  31. Matt Heath said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 7:19 am

    Heh, my guess was that the phrase "right foot" was going to be considered an anti-Catholic slur. This is roughly as silly.

    This is a standard right-wing newspaper manufactured story. I've seen in the past he claim that African and Caribbean Britons want "Baa Baa Black Sheep" banning as racist and that Muslims want the "This Little Piggy" (or "Three Little Pigs") song out. I'm not saying it can't be true but the press do seem quick to believe that minorities are trying to ban children's songs.

  32. Chris said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 9:06 am

    The press in general, or the Torygraph in particular? I sometimes get the impression from comments from that side of the Atlantic that it has all the commitment to journalistic integrity of Fox News.

  33. Alastair Scott said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

    @Chris: Take your pick from the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express in order of frequency; stories based on the same template as this one ("group X attempts to ban Y because of preposterous reason Z") come up every few months in one or other of those newspapers.

    There are a dozen national newspapers in the UK and, in my opinion, the concept of "journalistic integrity" is foreign to most of them most of the time. Flat Earth News is a good an introduction as any to the various mendacities that take place …

  34. Jak King said,

    December 31, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

    I was born a Cockney in 1949. When I was a lad, I was taught that the hokey-cokey was a satire on Masonic rites. Odd what we grow up believing.

  35. jr said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 7:07 am

    The claim that catholic ex-priests can't be elected seems to be wrong

    It is true that catholics can't become KIng or Queen though.

  36. peter said,

    January 1, 2009 @ 5:47 pm


    The British law of 2001 which allowed David Cairns to become an MP permitted CURRENT Catholic priests (and indeed, current clergy of other religions, with the exception of those Anglican Bishops entitled to sit in the House of Lords) to become Members of Parliament. As I said above, I think the laws which prohibit FORMER Catholic priests becoming MPs remain in force.

  37. MG said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 4:53 am

    It's ironic that the Hokey Cokey in its modern version involves, indeed promotes, dancing. If Puritan clergy did compose the original, they would be deeply appalled by the ultimate fruits of their labor.

    Perhaps the solution to the Telegraph's controversy is to permit Ranger's supporters to sing the Hokey Cokey but to require them to dance while doing so. Then the religious offensiveness would be balanced. At least as an historical matter.

  38. Matt Heath said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    The press in general, or the Torygraph in particular? I sometimes get the impression from comments from that side of the Atlantic that it has all the commitment to journalistic integrity of Fox New

    The Mail's probably even worse and the Sunday Torygraph worse than ghe Daily version

  39. Steve Harris said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    What struck me as most notable was the mere fact that this song–and even the accompanying dancing–is popular among *adults* in the UK. While it's very well-known in the US, it is purely a child's song, and, with the sole exception of those who lead children's songs, no one above the age of about 10 would be caught dead engaging in it, drunk or otherwise.

    I'll refrain from drawing conclusions on the differences between American and British culture based on popularity of drink-induced song-and-dance routines, lest I stumble into calliopeification.

  40. peter said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    A culture that engages in seventh-innings stretches is in no position to cast aspersions on mass song-and-dance routines!

  41. Irene said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    Steve Harris – In the Philadelphia area, not just children, but also adult wedding guests still dance the Hokey-Pokey (and the Mummers’ dance).

    And, I too have a woeful tale of anti-Catholic sentiment. I remind you that in the USA, the free, government-sponsored schools are called "public" and that public school students usually do not wear uniforms.

    When I was young, those of us attending Catholic schools were easily recognized by our uniforms. I recall walking home from school one day and being taunted by kids on the street who were pointing and shouting sing-songedly, “Catholics, Catholics.” So, I pointed back at them and shouted, “Publics, publics”.

  42. Sili said,

    January 2, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    I saw a wonderful rendition of the Hokey Cokey by a Swiss-American artiste at the Bath Festival some years ago – I wish I could recall her name. It was very adult, believe me.

    "Malbrough s'en va-t'en guerre"? That's awesome! We have it in Danish too: "Mallebrok er død i krigen".

  43. Jonathan said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    While incitement to hatred and insult are quite different things, this reminds me of a somewhat parallel situation I experienced a few years ago. A friend of mine (A) used the word "insult" to describe an (actual) event of one person having called another "gay". Another friend (B) accused him (A) of homophobia. A defended himself on the basis that if the word had been used with insulting intent then it was at least on that occasion an insult.

    So: if B witnesses A performing a communicative act involving C, which and how many of the three have to believe that the act is insulting for the act to become ipso facto insulting?

  44. John Ross said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    Certain occupations (pensioner, taxi driver… cardinal?) just involve too much sitting around and thinking idly about things, which is bound to result in eccentric ideas sometimes. I saw a Catholic priest on TV the other day complaining about the over-use in shopping centres and the like of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which, he insisted with some vehemence, was "not even a carol at all" (on the grounds that it is not religious but secular). Daft as a brush.

  45. Andrew said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

    Hans Lundahl: the average person would not have heard the relevant part of the mass, because it was said silently. That said, I can imagine Protestant preachers – who might previously have been Catholic priests, and in any case could read and would know the words of the mass – drawing attention to the words in such a way as to make them sound silly.

  46. John Ross said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    @ Andrew
    But listen to it – it's clearly a twentieth-century music-hall tune. It can't correspond to the time when Catholic priests were becoming Protestant preachers, unless Jimmy Kennedy or whoever pinched the lyrics from some kind of secret, Tudor-period songbook.

  47. ajay said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    "…a public statement by the then Prime Minister of Eire (the Republic of Ireland) that he was unable to visit Protestant parts of Scotland for reasons of personal security…"

    Which is a classic example of projection, if you like, because it's not Irish prime ministers that have to worry about being blown up by Scottish Protestants, but British prime ministers that have to worry about being blown up by Irish Catholics…

  48. John Cowan said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

    I have seen a T-shirt, in adult sizes, that reads "Maybe the hokey-pokey really is what it's all about." So I think the song's association in the U.S. solely with children is incorrect.

  49. David Harmon said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

    I've also seen the "hokey pokey" at US weddings. Agreed that this sounds like a manufactured story, though. The thing is, any newspaper of "that sort" will have a whole list of public figures whom they can count on for a suitably (and stupidly) inflammatory soundbite….

  50. Andrew said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    John Ross: Yes, but my comment wasn't directly about the song but (as you'll see if you trace its ancestry back through the comments) about the expression 'hocus-pocus'. (I'm only saying this could have happened, mind you.)

  51. HeyTeach said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    Hello, all. Long-time listener, first-time caller, though I can't remember seeing a discussion on the following.

    In linguistic, grammatic, and sociological matters, I'm a "usage-ist." I tend to believe that the source of meaning for a grammatical form, a word, a tradtition, etc., is the way people commonly use it. (Although I'm sure I could think of places this philosophy would break down for me.)

    If people use a formerly innocuous children's song to be offensive, then IT IS offensive. Another example: The ONLY reason "flipping the bird" to someone is a dire insult is that many people BELIEVE it is a dire insult. There's nothing inherently offensive about someone's middle finger. (Not to mention other, non-U. S. places that use more fingers, or one's thumb.) It's all about usage. So a song or a gesture can stir up hatred if the users INTEND to stir up hatred. By this rule, the vehicle by which someone intends to offend matters not.

    Usage — therefore, intent — is king.

    Hundreds of years ago, a Pope declared a holiday in December to celebrate the birth of Christ. It "just so happened" to coincide with a pagan winter festival. Now, Christians recognize the Catholic holiday and have mostly forgotten completely it's pagan origins (and would probably barf if they knew what the tradition of the decorated tree originally meant). Do Christians throw out Christmas because it used to be pagan? Mostly, no. Usage is king. Christians don't intend to celebrate a pagan festival; therefore, they don't.

    If soccer fans INTEND to insult Catholics, they DO. The method is secondary.

  52. Merri said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    That's a bit restrictive.

    I know many Christians who celebrate at the same time the birth of Jesus and the re-waxing of days, in full knowledge of the interaction between Christmas and Yule, and are happy (or merry) about it.


  53. HeyTeach said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

    Merri, that wasn't my point, although you cause me to remember that "common usage" doesn't mean "universal usage." Of course, there will be exceptions.

    So, obviously, the sense of the passage was about the GENERAL intent of MOST Christians, and then only as an example in support of the larger issue I was discussing, that common or popular use of a word, grammatical form, or tradition determines the meaning of same.

    Of course, you knew that, though. And I would love to hear (read "read") what you have to say about usage determining meaning in the large context that I intended.

  54. Alex Watt said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    Just another paranoid minority (in the UK) looking for conspiracies against them.

  55. Harry Campbell said,

    February 8, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    This is reminiscent of the time a few years ago when an MSP [Member of the Scottish Parliament] demanded restrictions on the use of the Scottish colloquialism "ned", something like the English "chav" or "yob", on the grounds that it was an abbreviation of "non-educated delinquent" which "were it used in relation to any other section of society, would be considered an 'ism'".
    Of course, people don't hesitate to swallow any sort of obvious nonsense if it fuels their sense of themselves as crusaders against injustice, but there are surely questions to be asked about how members of paliament can be allowed to embarrass themselves, waste parliamentary time and, I suggest, bring the hard-won Scottish Parliament into disrepute by repeating some tall tale they heard the other day, without even bothering to spend five minutes googling to see if there's any truth in it. Neither do the excuses for journalists who give it the oxygen of publicity — and presto, yet another spurious grievance from the factory of linguistic mythology for the hard-done-by to latch onto. As if there wasn't enough genuine injustice in the world.

  56. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 5:11 am

    I should add that it was recently reported in the press (here, for example, as Alex Watt points out above) that the songwriter who wrote "The Hokey-Cokey", Al Tabor, insisted that it had nothing to do with mocking the Catholic church, so the above post may just be spreading another myth. I do not know. These things are hard to investigate: songwriters are not reliable about the sources or meanings of their songs (think of Bob Dylan's hopelessly unrevealing and disingenuous remarks about his songs in many interviews). It is not clear whether we will ever get to the bottom of the story. All I can do is show you the top. There may be another ninety percent of the story underwater. Language Log offers no guarantees of truth, only an honest and sincere interest in the possibility of it.

RSS feed for comments on this post