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Is it something I said? Scurrilous or taboo language

Jack H CDean25 June 2014

The penultimate event of UCL’s One Day in the City saw John Sutherland (Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL) chair a debate on scurrilous or taboo language with Will Self, Tim Clare and Melanie Abrahams, who stood in for the absent Sunday Times writer, India Knight.

one day in the city

Sutherland began by introducing Will Self as “a novelist and presenter”, to which Self replied: “Presenter? What the fuck are you talking about?”

Sutherland continued, suggesting that we are “rediscovering linguistic taboo” and that Freud had written that all language begins with it: “It is uncanny and unclean”.

He explained that during his lifetime – Sutherland was born in 1938 – the diachronic alteration of language had been dramatic, but that it was also vital to look at language synchronically. Diachronic change being linguistic alteration over time and synchronic, meaning the study of language at one point in history.

The end of the 1930s, for example, saw the publication of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers a title that was synchronically acceptable. By the 1970s, this had changed to And then there were none…, which alluded to a nursery rhyme in the novel. This was a notable diachronic change.

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