He Who Must Not Be Named
I read a blog post the other day by the estimable Digby. It’s a passionate and incisive piece of writing, but that’s not what stood out for me. What stood out was the fact that, after the first couple of paragraphs, she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, bring herself to use the name of the current US president. You know the one I mean. She took to calling him ‘Junior’. And then I realised that only a couple of days ago I’d written an entire almost one-thousand-word post about the election, while scrupulously avoiding his name also. There are others, of course: Eric Alterman (or is it Charles Pierce?) commonly refers to him as ‘C-Plus Augustus’, and to the great Molly Ivins he’ll always be ‘Shrub’.
There’s more than just a making-fun-of going on here. It’s as if putting the words ‘President’, and ‘You-Know-Who’, together would be somehow defamatory to the position, and I think that’s absolutely true. Knowing that it’s an honorific that tends to go with respect for the position itself (and is an American trope generally – it made me smile a few weeks ago when a cute undergrad girl called me ‘sir’ as I held open a door for her, and not just for the kink angle – though admittedly mostly for that) doesn’t make me cringe any less when I hear Tim Russert or some other media toady refer to He Who Must Not Be Named as ‘sir’.
Respect doesn’t come for free with a post, like a plastic toy soldier in a box of cereal. It’s the person who gets respect, so long as it’s earned. I can’t help but think of the line that Jeremy Paxman claims he thinks to himself when he’s about to interview a politician: ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’. And quite right too. Democracy works when power is challenged, by the formal opposition, by the media, by everyone. What might seem to be disrespect towards individual politicians in Paxman’s words is rightly seen as his utter respect for the democratic process and the checks and balances that keep it strong. In order to take that position, appropriate choice of language isn’t a bad place to start.