Although members of the British Parliament have immunity from prosecution, protecting their right to make statements and bring charges that may be in the national interest, there are necessary restraints preventing attacks on the character and dignity of individuals. The basic characterization of unparliamentary language is that in the view of the Speaker of the House of Commons or equivalent chamber, it breaks the rules of respect. The convention of politeness whereby British Members of Parliament refer to each other as “the honourable” and use other artificial formulas of respect extends to not accusing each other of lying, being drunk, misrepresenting, or insulting each other. This last category is, of course, less easy to define. The specific terms to which the Speaker has objected over the years include blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, stoolpigeon, swine , and traitor . These vary from the most serious moral condemnations to vulgar abuse. The usual procedure is for the Speaker to demand that the offensive terms be withdrawn, failing which the Member of Parliament will be disciplined or dismissed from the Chamber.

Although unparliamentary has been used in a generalized sense from the early seventeenth century, the first record in the Oxford English Dictionary of the phrase “unparliamentary language” dates only from 1810: “The Speaker stated that … a member had used unparliamentary language” ( Sporting Magazine , XXXV, 302). However, there have been some spectacular earlier breaches. When Oliver Cromwell dissolved Parliament on April 20, 1653, he launched a damning verbal broadside at the incumbents: “Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government. Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage.” He pointed at individuals, and called them “whoremasters, drunkards, corrupt and unjust men,” adding: “Ye have no more religion than my horse…. Perhaps ye think this is not parliamentary language. I confess it is not, neither are you to expect any such from me.” Some members protested, more at his language than his unconstitutional action in closing Parliament. (S.R. Gardiner 1903, 262-63).

In spite of the conventional prohibitions, the House of Commons has witnessed some extraordinarily savage insults inflicted in the course of debates. The contests between Charles James Fox and William Pitt in the late eighteenth century were legendary. The debate on the Irish Home Rule Bill (July 27, 1893) degenerated into a fracas and a fight lasting twenty minutes. On May 15, 1846, Benjamin Disraeli attacked Sir Robert Peel in the following terms: “I find that for between thirty and forty years the right honourable gentleman has traded on the ideas and intelligence of others. (Loud cheering.) His life has been a great appropriation clause. (Shouts of laughter and cheers.) He is a burglar of others’ intellect … there is no statesman who has committed political petty larceny on so great a scale. (Re- newed laughter.)” (W.F. Monypenny 1912, Vol. II, 353). Disraeli’s rhetorical cunning is to avoid the “unparliamentary” words thief and theft , using more polite, high-register but equally damaging equivalents. Disraeli used the same rhetorical technique in publicly dismissing his great enemy and rival William Gladstone with withering sarcasm as “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated with exuberance of his own verbosity” ( Times , July 29, 1878). Perhaps the most famous and witty of these technical evasions was Sir Winston Churchill’s use of the phrase “terminological inexactitude” as a substitute for “lie” (February 22, 1906).

In the House of Commons of Commonwealth countries, the definition of “unparliamentary language” is broader. Thus in the Canadian it is interpreted as “any language which leads to disorder in the House.” In February 1971 the Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau caused a minor scandal when he allegedly told opposition M.P.s to “fuck off.” This was a unique occurrence. In the Australian House of Representatives there is still more latitude, shown in a number of colorful instances, such as this from 1970: “I never use the word ‘bloody’ because it is unparliamentary. It is a word I never bloody well use” (Hornadge 1980, 145). Some exchanges involve extremely insulting language, such as this in 1975:

Dr. R.T. Gun (Labour):    “Why don’t you shut up, you great poofter?”

Mr. J.W. Bourchier (Liberal): “Come round here, you little wop, and I’ll fix you up.”

(Cited in Hornadge 1980, 166)

The South African Parliament has stricter definitions and rulings over “offensive and unbecoming language.” From 1994 (the year of the first democratic election) to 2001, the number of expressions ruled by the Speaker to be “unparliamentary” rose annually from five to thirty. The most common expressions were lie/liar/lying, shut up , and racist , the last category generating many specific terms commonly heard in the past, such as boy, monkey, golliwog, ape, baboon , and other local insulting words for blacks, such as coconut, hotnot (a corruption of Hottentot ), and one newcomer, token black .

Rule 19 of the United States Senate prohibits “language unbecoming a senator.” Although breaches are not common, according to the Washington Post (June 25, 2004), Vice President Dick Cheney, then president of the Senate, told Senator Patrick J. Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) to “fuck yourself” in the course of a widely publicized exchange on the floor of the Senate. However, the Senate was not in session at the time, and Cheney did not apologize.

The term unparliamentary has had a minor general currency, being included in Farmer and Henley’s dictionary Slang and Its Analogues (1890–1904) in the slightly euphemistic senses of “abusive, obscene, unfit for ordinary conversation.”

<a href=”http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/833/Unparliamentary-Language.html”>Unparliamentary Language</a>


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