I was fortunate enough to be brought up by my grandparents. It gave me an appreciation and understanding of ways of life other than what may be accepted by members of my peer group as “the norm”.
Nan was a very solid, sensible woman; practical, hard nosed, desperately proud, quick to temper, prone to sulks at times. She was funny, rude, informative and kind. She could destroy you with a look but was the one who would sit stroking my hair and calming me during one of my many childhood night terrors.
Grandad was a quiet man with a quick wit. He liked a drink and to socialise, performed magic tricks; an expert storyteller with an ability to convey and capture you in a chronicle like no other. He worked nights and we were often needed to be quiet during the day so he could sleep, but he ensured that he spent time with us three children, sharing something special and unique with each of us.
They were people of their time. Nan maintained she was racist but to me this seemed akin to most people’s assertion that they are C of E; something that she had been brought up to believe but showed no empirical evidence of. Grandad was fond of getting an attack of what he called “The Sillies”, but worked tirelessly as a union shop steward at Ford’s.
Words were words in our house. There were no banned words, simply words that were used and words that were not used. Surprisingly to anyone who knows me now, I was late to swearing as I did not hear it at home.
I recall coming home one day from school, having heard a word in the playground, to ask what it meant. Nan turned ashen and Grandad was summoned from his bed to speak with me.
We walked around the garden, and Grandad told me about when he came to England, aged 16, during the war. He was spat on, refused entry to places, beaten up several times and these were the lighter aspects that he could tell to a 7 year old. When Nan and he married, her family refused to accept the match. He told me about their early lives together.
In later years, Nan became increasingly immobile. She had horrendous leg ulcers for which she endured many years of painful operations, and as she refused amputation, she needed a wheelchair to get around. As times had changed so had attitudes towards the Irish, although an Irish accent then equated to an association with the IRA in much the same way as a turban indicates membership to Al Qaeda today for some members of the community. He was addressed and she was ignored, the assumption being that she had in some way lost the ability to talk because she had lost the ability to walk.
Both experienced name calling based on an assumption of what and who they were, having been judged based on other’s expectations of what they could achieve. Perhaps they always stayed quiet and accepted it; perhaps they challenged it; certainly they did not “get over it”.
Regardless of how the meaning of a word may evolve or change, the intention behind its use does not always move at the same speed. People may change but not all people do.
After that chat in the garden with Grandad, I have never repeated the word I asked him about that day and can still only refer to it as “the ‘p’ word”. He told me that to use words that pick up on other’s differences, either as a weapon, a percieved defence or as a casual shorthand was not what he expected from me. I will not disappoint him in this expectation as I believe it to be true.
Fast forward to now. I have been subjected to other’s “hilarious” casual use of words that have been used against my son, and on challenging them have been told I am over reacting. Language matures and the meaning of a word may advance, but the intention behind how it is used and received may not. It cannot be for anyone to challenge another’s reaction to a word, because they do not know their life experience behind it.
When I read or hear words that I consider to be archaic anachronisms, it surprises me rather than shocks me. It makes me feel shame and pity; shame that the person using the word is so ignorant, and pity that they are living in a world where they think it is acceptable to demean others by casual reference to their colour, sexuality or disability before they criticise anyone who addresses them on it.
It’s just not something that we should consider to be acceptable if we claim to be civilised and educated. Is it?