Sticks and stones by any other name

Did Juliet get it wrong? How do you order a coffee?

Pondering the significance of the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues on her love for Romeo, Shakespeare’s Juliet tells herself that the relationship between a name and the thing that it names is arbitrary – his family name is immaterial; a person is distinct from what they’re called. She says this rather more poetically than I have, in the well-known lines:


‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.’


Many people would disagree, based on their experience or knowledge of familial, tribal, political, religious, national, sexual, ethnic, footballing (and so on) feuds and prejudices. Maybe Juliet didn’t really believe it herself and was doing what we all do some of the time, arguing for what she wished rather than what she knew to be true. Certainly, in the play of Romeo and Juliet, she was wrong – both she and Romeo die because of their family names. And in real life, name-calling is the most common form of bullying amongst children and young people (see, for example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission research report on identity-based bullying).


These are extreme, if not uncommon, examples but they do illustrate the power of language to play on our emotions – even about what we would surely agree in our more rational moments are fairly trivial matters. In response to an article about why Americanisms entering British English cause irritation, for example, thousands of people emailed the BBC News Magazine about their own particular irritants. Here is a flavour of the instances individuals emailed about:


  • people [in coffee shops I assume] asking, ‘Can I get a…’
  • references to ‘the least worst option’
  • ‘take-outs’ instead of ‘takeaways’
  • saying ‘I’m good’ rather than ‘I’m well’
  • transforming nouns into verbs by adding ‘ize’ at the end – eg burglarize
  • ‘going forward’ instead of… [Well, I’m not sure what it’s instead of.]
  •  ‘for free’ instead of plain ‘free’.


However, it wasn’t the examples that interested me as much as the emotional intensity they generated as illustrated by the words the emailers used to describe their feelings:


  • ‘My pulse rises…’
  • ‘It makes me cringe no end.’
  • ‘The word I hate to hear is…’
  • ‘It makes me shudder.’
  •  ‘…really irritates me.’
  • ‘My worst horror is…’
  • ‘Sets my teeth on edge with a vengeance.’


It may be that these people have such dull lives that they depend on minor linguistic imports to set their hearts racing. But I doubt it, though I don’t have the scientific evidence. I think that emotional responses to aspects of language run much deeper.


It is not only words and phrases; it’s accents too. Given our distance from the social world portrayed in Downton Abbey, you might expect that social judgements based on people’s accents would have all but disappeared. Not so, it seems. An article in the Birmingham Mail, for example, shows the persistence of the long-standing low esteem people from elsewhere in the UK have for the Birmingham accent. Reporting on the development of a sat nav system by Mio that gives directions in local accents as you drive through the country, the article refers to a survey conducted by Tom Tom, which found that ‘the Brummie accent is one of the most disliked in the country’, drivers preferring to be given their instructions in an upper-class accent of the Joanna Lumley variety.  The Dialect Blog refers to some of the adjectives British people use to describe the Birmingham accent: ‘loutish’, ‘thuggish’ and ‘thievish’. The American author of the piece is puzzled, hearing the accent as ‘one of England’s many unusual dialect pockets, with nothing more or less offensive than any other type of regional speech.’


And that’s the point: there is nothing intrinsically criminal about the Birmingham accent, any more than there is something inherently hateful in the name of Montague. It’s more that our associations with particular words and accents arouse our passions and preconceptions. Language is loaded with emotion, even when we don’t intend it to be.


The thin edge of the wedge for me was Jill Archer, taken out to tea by her daughter Elizabeth in a recent episode of The Archers, when she said that the cakes were ‘to die for’. I haven’t been able to find the origin of the expression but it surely comes most recently from the USA and, I am almost certain, derives from the grammar of Yiddish and is probably completely unrelated to the Yiddish proverb ‘If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.’ I like the expression. But in Ambridge?


There’s a lot more to be said about the serious side of the emotional aspects of language. Another time. For now, I’m off to dinnerize with my buddies.