- - Thursday, December 26, 2013

Civility is a lot like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Just now there’s lots of talk about proper language in the British Parliament, where they’re fussy about words. Well, why not?

The English own the English language, after all, and the rest of us are merely borrowers. Winston Churchill famously described England and America as a common people divided by a common language. Our cousins in Old Blighty do in fact use the language with a bit more respect than we do, though it’s also true that slang, swing and swagger have given the mother tongue a liveliness that our cousins sometimes envy and occasionally copy. But only sometimes.

What has the Parliament in London upset is the coarsening of the language in the House of Commons, where the speaker, John Bercow, is upset about the frequent use of the word “crap” in parliamentary debates. What set the speaker off, according to The London Guardian, was a remark by a Labor member about a remark by Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr. Cameron had described certain environmental policies as “green crap,” and the honorable member wanted to know what he meant by “green crap.” We sympathize with the prime minister. We have a lot of that stuff, whatever it may be properly and politely called, on this side of the pond.

But then a Tory member denounced, in a tweet (which by definition is usually crap), the message “EUredtapecrap,” and suddenly, according to The Guardian, “crap was flying everywhere. What could be done about all this crap?”

That’s when the speaker stepped in, and maybe just in time. That is what speakers are for. He said the word would no longer be tolerated in normal circumstances in parliamentary debate, because “crap,” though it had become a popular word in parliamentary debate, was not henceforth a parliamentary word. People could not call each other, or their policies, crap. All that crap had to go. But the prime minister could say “green crap” because it was not a normal circumstance, and the curious Labor minister could say crap, too, because he was merely quoting the speaker. That was not a normal circumstance, either.

“Crap,” though coarse, is not as impolite in American usage as it used to be, if only because coarse has become the accepted idiom, to be guarded against, to be sure. But using it is a misdemeanor at worst, certainly not a felony, and a rule rarely enforced. “Crap” has become merely a synonym for several unpleasant things, among them the work product of certain parliamentary bodies, and not necessarily the parliamentary body on yonder side of the Atlantic. We produce a lot of crap of our own. A lot of ours, to borrow from the prime minister, is green, too. We should all cut the crap.