Letting language die, by Ben Jeapes

I’ve recently had the pleasure of inheriting the entire Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers, and am enjoying working my way through it, one book at a time in publication order.

That enjoyment was dented slightly during Unnatural Death by coming across language and attitudes towards black people that was used unblushingly in 1927 but would be completely unacceptable nowadays. One word in particular, which you can probably guess.

(It’s also true that throughout the books I’ve read so far, characters use words and attitudes towards Jews that would never have been used post-1945. For some reason, this was the moment where I actually winced)

And yet, the word is used in all innocence by Peter to describe a black man he actually has the highest regard and respect for – a missionary working in the East End. Elsewhere in the plot, the murderer leaves clues to suggest, falsely, that a white woman has been abducted by a black man. It is the latter detail that makes the story so much worse, as far as the great British public of the late 1920s is concerned. It is also quite clear that Sayers is having a joke at the great British public’s expense. She is pointing a finger at them for their reaction, and not endorsing it in the slightest.

Mens rea – guilty intent – is a vital factor to consider in any kind of judgment. I think that in Sayers’ time, it was possible to use this language in complete innocence, as well as with intent to wound and to harm. I repeat, in Sayers’ time. It is definitely not possible nowadays – at the very least it would show that the user is culpably ignorant of modern sensibilities. With or without mens rea, the fact is the word now hurts. The test I think is, could the same story be retold without that language? In this case, yes it could. Witness also Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which was originally published in 1939 under a quite different title, based on a minstrel song. The book loses nothing from having a completely different name now. Unnatural Death could very easily be republished with a few minor changes to the text that would have a huge effect on the readership.

Sadly, I might not be the only one with crusty relatives and acquaintances who at this point splutter outrage and mumble that that word was perfectly acceptable when Christie and Sayers used it, so why can't we now? Why does anything need retitling or re-editing?

My answer would be, what exactly are you trying to prove? I am sure Sayers would have been horrified to know how that kind of language is used nowadays. Are you really saying that our gloriously rich English language can’t afford to lose one word?

So, why not just let the word die? Why not deprive the racists of a tool they can use for abuse? Okay, they will only go and appropriate another currently innocent word anyway (look what happened to the well-meaning “special”) but it may at least be a temporary setback. And isn’t the take-home message of 1 Corinthians 8 that a Christian does not stand on their rights, and if something you are doing hurts other people, you stop doing it?

I love the English language with a passion – but to love something also allows the possibility of that something changing.

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of eight novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. His most recent title is a children’s biography of Ada Lovelace. www.benjeapes.com

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  1. This site continues to steal content from other sites without any kind of acknowledgement or attribution. This is seriously unChristian behaviour and I wish you would stop doing it. This article was originally published on the blog of the UK's Association of Christian Writers at https://morethanwriters.blogspot.com/2023/01/letting-language-die-by-ben-jeapes.html.