Friday, January 02, 2009

Birth of an urban myth

There was a very short letter in last week's Bath Chronicle, and a post on the thisisbath forums a couple of days or so before. Both were from the same writer, and both said more or less the same thing:

"I have recently discovered that central government has issued instructions (maybe even a legal requirement by now?) that the use of the term 'black eye' is no longer allowed. One must refer to the said infliction as a 'bruised eye'. Where is our once great country going?"

When questioned on the forum about where or when he'd heard this, the writer said: "This information was given to me by an employee of the council's child support team. Instructions had been issued that 'black eye' was no longer correct when referring to children in their care. 'Bruised eye' must now be used. I admit I have not bothered to investigate further, but reflecting on the record of the past decade regarding such issues, it certainly has a distinct ring of truth."

The unfortunate fact is that it has absolutely no ring of truth about it whatsoever. You can Google till you're blue (or black) in the face and you'll find no association between "black eye" and "banned", or indeed between "bruised eye" and "political correctness".

Indeed, you can search the B&NES website (presuming that B&NES is the "council" the writer was referring to), and you'll find no reference to "black eye" or to "bruised eye". It doesn't actually look as though the council has made much of an effort to publicise its achievements in promulgating this alleged Government directive either.

All right, just because you can't find it on the internet it doesn't mean it isn't true, but there's not even a trace of a mention: if this really is a "central government directive", then it must be the least publicised one of all time.

So what exactly is going on here? The clue may be in the last line of the letter: our "once great country", it implies, is going to hell in a handcart because PC New Labour social worker villains are trying to appropriate our language.

They want to take away our sovereignty, they want to Eurofy our currency, they want to straighten our bananas and they want to give traditional British delicacies like Bombay Mix anti-colonial names like Mumbai Savoury Confection.

And if they can't get away with that, we're expected to believe, they'll do their best to remove every possible trace of the words black, white, yellow and brown from good old English phrases like "black eye", "white Christmas", "yellow belly" and "Gordon Brown".

All in the name of political correctness.

Rumours like this certainly send the non-PC, non-New Labour, non-social-working classes into a right old tizzy about the decline of once Great Britain.

But in this case, it looks like something different is going on.

Tread softly, because we are present at the birth of an urban myth.

It's a bit like being the astronomer who is the first to see a supernova or to discover a new planet.

It's a bit like being the biologist who discovers a new species deep in the Cambodian jungle (just hope it isn't one of those poisonous pink centipedes).

Now most urban myths – like the story that you swallow eight spiders every time you sleep, or that you have to wait half an hour after eating before going for a swim – don't have any sort of verifiable source.

As soon as you start to track one back to its origin, you discover that the person who told you heard it from someone in the pub who heard it from their cousin who emigrated to America three years ago who heard it from the milkman... You get the picture.

But in the case of this new urban myth – that the phrase "black eye" has been banned by some anonymous Government agency – there can be no doubt where it originated: on the letters pages of your very own Bath Chronicle. First with the news, and first with the myths. Happy new year!

This column first appeared in The Bath Chronicle on Thursday January 1 2009.

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