Purposefully Unparliamentary

Over the last week, media has been full of news, editorials, funny pieces and trying-to-be-funny pieces about the list of banned words issued by the Parliament Secretariat in India—apparently a standard practice before the start of a session.

banned words

The use of language and words is a zone of contention in most parliaments across the world. Nor is this a phenomenon of recent times. The earliest recorded instances are from 991 AD, when incidents of ritual cursing and boasting (called flyting) were reported between Germanic chieftains.

The discretion to rule what is acceptable and what is not, is generally left to the Speaker of the house, but there are often lists and books and rules to guide them. While some Speakers revel in the power to cut down the words of their House colleagues, others feel constrained to do so by the duty imposed on them. For instance, ‘Un-parliamentary language is one of the things for which a Speaker must be on guard. Since the beginning of Confederation, a list has been drawn up of words, expressions and sentences that are not to be used by Members in the House. To employ them is to incur the wrath of the presiding officer of the day, and the penalties can be swift and harsh.. Now, as a humane, civilized man, it is not a task I relish, but there must be discipline in the Chamber, and I will take whatever measures, no matter how repressive they may seem, to quell unrest.’ said the Speaker of the Canadian House in 2001.

But obviously the members test the limits. For instance, the Scottish Parliament objected to the First Minister being called a liar. So the member who used that word substituted it with ‘dishonest’ and ‘perpetuating a con trick’, which had the precedent of having been used in the same debate but not objected to.

Or they use the word and then apologize: Irish MP Paul Gogarty of the Green Party used the F-word after being heckled by the opposition. He immediately apologized for the rant, which he admitted was “the most unparliamentary language”. Justin Trudeau, before he became PM of Canada, called an MP a ‘piece of shit’ and then quickly apologized.

On the other hand, some don’t apologize or withdraw their words, and are ready to face the consequences. Plaid Cymru AM calling the Queen “Mrs. Windsor” and became the first MP to be ordered out of the Welsh assembly chamber  because she refused to withdraw her words. In the UK, Dennis Skinner called the then-PM David Cameroon “Dodgy Dave”, and was kicked out from the Commons.

There is actually a lot academic research and theorizing on why parliamentarians are so unparliamentary in their speech! Here are some insights from ‘Language and Ideology’ a book edited by Rene Dirven, Roslyn Frank and Cornelia Ilie, which has a whole chapter devoted to this: ‘In a hierarchically-based and rule-regulating setting like parliament, insults are powerful because they challenge the ‘status quo’.’

Our parliamentarians will surely agree with the following finding: ‘Language users have noticed that abusive and derogatory words tend to have a detrimental effect on the target of the insult, while at the same time, they may strengthen the position of the insult initiator.’ The researches aver that ‘By offering the insults publicly, insult initiators intend to reach a wider audience.’

The book explains the three major objectives of parliamentary insults:

  1. To score points by silencing, embarrassing, and/or humiliating political adversaries
  2. To challenge the authority and institutional role of political adversaries
  3. To redress the political imbalance and to strengthen group cohesion.

So next time we hear some unparliamentary language, more than worrying about the words, maybe we should try to fathom the motive!

–Meena