A House full of insults: an informal look at the history of parliamentary put-downs
December 11, 2005 1:00 AM   Subscribe

A House full of insults is an informal look at the history of parliamentary put-downs and their inconsistent consequences in Britain's House of Commons.
posted by nthdegx (22 comments total)
Several people were ejected from the chamber after a melee on April 5, 1949. A contemporary described the scene, after one MP had called another a fascist: "A socialist hit Beverley Baxter in the face. Waldron Smithers, who was well away, tried to push into the middle of the scrum, and shoved Lady Davidson out of the way.

"So she turned on him. He told her to shut her bloody mouth - so that was a private Conservative row."

If the US Congress conducted business like that more often, I'd actually watch CSPAN.
posted by kosher_jenny at 1:23 AM on December 11, 2005

I love the closing lines about the word "poppycock" - the article is silent on what it means, but I believe it derives from the Dutch for "soft shit".

My favorite Parliamentary story is about Edwina Currie during a debate on poisonous chemicals, who said something to the effect that everything is a poison in the right quantity - and that if she were to spreadeagle the MP who had just spoken on the floor and pour enough water into him, even that would kill him. To which the MP (whose name I forget) said that if he were spreadeagled on the floor by Edwina Currie, he would be glad to have the chance of a quick death.
posted by greycap at 1:50 AM on December 11, 2005

My favourites:

Michael Foot did not get into trouble for calling Norman Tebbit a "semi-house-trained polecat". Instead Tebbit used a polecat in his coat-of-arms when he entered the House of Lords.

He also once described - with impunity - the former Tory MP Terry Dicks as "living proof that a pig's bladder on the end of a stick can be elected to Parliament".
posted by Turtles all the way down at 1:54 AM on December 11, 2005

"cagmags" "scrub heaps" "old tattles" "sex-starved boa-constrictor" "semi-house-trained polecat"

*furiously scribbles all these down*

I am so using these in my everyday conversations. I like how it's a "semi-house-trained polecat." To say that he's a completely unhousebroken polecat would just be rude!
posted by brundlefly at 2:00 AM on December 11, 2005

By the way, "sex-starved boa-constrictor" is prime sock puppet material. Quotation marks and all.
posted by brundlefly at 2:01 AM on December 11, 2005

Any article on this subject which fails to include Dennis Healey's description of being verbally attacked by Sir Geoffrey Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" is woefully inadequate.
posted by Hogshead at 4:31 AM on December 11, 2005

A couple of amusing examples of misunderstanding how language works there. One, noted by greycap, is the idiocy about poppycock—its etymology is completely irrelevant to whether it is or is not a "bad word" in English. Otherwise, there would be no bad words; shit, for example, comes from an Indo-European root meaning 'to cut, split.'

The other is this:
Ex-Labour MP Paul Boateng was once hauled over the coals for using the term "Sweet FA" because the authorities wrongly thought it was a way of using the "F-word".

In fact it is 19th century naval slang for packed mutton.

It refers to Fanny Adams, who was murdered in 1867, cut into pieces and thrown into the river at Alton, Hampshire.
FA is absolutely an abbreviation of fuck-all; the whole "Fanny Adams" thing is a cute cover story people can use to pretend they weren't really using bad language. It's like pretending the "fug" in The Naked and the Dead is really the word meaning 'heavy, stale atmosphere.'

A most enjoyable post!
posted by languagehat at 6:57 AM on December 11, 2005

FA is absolutely an abbreviation of fuck-all; the whole "Fanny Adams" thing is a cute cover story people can use to pretend they weren't really using bad language.

I *thought* that sounded suspicious. Thanks for the clarification languagehat.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:57 AM on December 11, 2005

Excellent article.

If the US Congress conducted business like that more often, I'd actually watch CSPAN.

I don't know if they still do, but C-Span used to run Parliament every now and then. I was a teenager in the 80s when I first saw it, and I was dumbstruck at the open heckling, jeering, and catcalling. It was great!

Odd that the scruffy rebellious offspring country should have the stuffier public debate than the motherland.
posted by Miko at 8:34 AM on December 11, 2005

I was wondering if their breaking the "Sweet F.A." business into three short paragraphs was in some way hinting that the writer wasn't really saying what he meant. I have no idea, though.
posted by nthdegx at 8:49 AM on December 11, 2005

One Labour MP was called to order for saying that a Tory was a member of the SS. As he withdrew the term, he pretended he thought the letters stood for "silly sod".

Yeah. See, what had happened was...
posted by Miko at 8:55 AM on December 11, 2005

The late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn escaped rebuke, but not disdain, by describing women MPs as "mostly hideous - they have no fragrance and I dislike women who deny their femininity. They are just cagmags, scrub heaps, old tattles".

Ah, the British Parliament, where even the misogynists are creative and well-spoken.

I keeed. Always love watching the lively debates. Thanks, nth, for the article, great read!
posted by donpedro at 10:17 AM on December 11, 2005

(What the hell is a cagmag anyway?) /UK ign'rance
posted by donpedro at 10:19 AM on December 11, 2005

Nice post! (Especially from the Beeb!)
posted by Blip at 10:52 AM on December 11, 2005

According to Google a cagmag seems to mean a "tough old goose" - in the literal sense, although you can see how it could come to be applied to a person. However, Google also comes up with it as a piece of west Midlands slang with a range of derogatory meanings. Being a wussy southerner, though, I'd never heard of it before. It's a great word - will have to find a way to work it into conversation.

If you want to find out more about Nicholas Fairbairn then check out the Wikipedia entry - notable for this:

During 1994 debates regarding the age of consent in the House of Commons, Fairbairn had to be called to order by the Speaker after starting a drunken and vivid description of sodomy.

I was intrigued by this and have tried to dig out the Hansard for that debate - can't find much of Fairbairn's comments (maybe they've been edited out), but just check out Robert Spink's rant, and Michael Fabricant's valiant attempt to stop him! A brilliant example of the crap that gets talked in Parliament. And this was only 11 years ago... things have moved on, thankfully.
posted by greycap at 11:29 AM on December 11, 2005

One cannot indulge in drugs, in incest or in bestiality at 18 or bugger a woman at 18. Why should one be allowed to bugger a man at 18 ?


Nice link, thanks. Indeed, perhaps edited out (there's some unspecified "interruption" in there).
posted by donpedro at 11:42 AM on December 11, 2005

(Interruption) = MPs are shouting 'Wanker!'

Hon. Members: Oh! Oh! = MPs are shouting 'Bollocks!'.

Not on the floor of the house, but my favourite BritPol insult is Ernest Bevin on Herbert Morrison. When one MP said that Morrison "was his own worst enemy", Bevin replied "Not while I'm alive, he ain't".
posted by athenian at 12:30 PM on December 11, 2005

The Lords, incidentally, have no Speaker. When things get fraught, a Lord can make a motion "that the Standing Order on Asperity of Speech be read by the Clerk".

The Clerk of the House then, slowly, reads the following:
To prevent misunderstanding, and for avoiding of offensive speeches, when matters are debating, either in the House or at Committees, it is for honour sake thought fit, and so ordered, That all personal, sharp, or taxing speeches be forborn, and whosoever answereth another man's speech shall apply his answer to the matter without wrong to the person: and as nothing offensive is to be spoken, so nothing is to be ill taken, if the party that speaks it shall presently make a fair exposition or clear denial of the words that might bear any ill construction; and if any offence be given in that kind, as the House itself will be very sensible thereof, so it will sharply censure the offender, and give the party offended a fit reparation and a full satisfaction.
It's all very gentlemanly in the Lords.
posted by athenian at 12:38 PM on December 11, 2005

May I recommend http://www.parliamentlive.tv/ ? I have lost many an hour to the archive section of this site.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:59 PM on December 11, 2005

Excellent link!

I am being very unfair here, but isn't it so that American expletives mainly involve the word "fuck" and British insults are much more diverse?

Or am I steeped to much in common culture as opposed to more gentlemanly American debate ?

But even the vulgar band "The Streets" seems much more articulate than many a colonial rapper... :-)

To avoid seeming trollish, I have to applaud the late Hunter S. Thompson. His insults are a delight!
posted by mmkhd at 3:23 PM on December 11, 2005

Since the demise of the self-penned address in American politics, where even routine speeches are delivered courtesy of the TelePrompter (or perhaps the dorsal-mounted receiver), we must look outside the Beltway for trenchant commentary. As always, it's been up to the literary set to dish out the tastiest morsels:

Bierce: "Politics: The conduct of public affairs for private advantage."
Twain: "Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."
Mencken: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”
posted by rob511 at 5:34 PM on December 11, 2005

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