Private Members – and other rude words in Parliament

A guest post by Matthew Bailey:

Wednesday’s speech by Penny Mordaunt on the Loyal Address has attracted much praise – as well as producing a scramble to find out when the word ‘penis’ was first used in parliamentary debates.  The answer appears to be a Commons adjournment debate in 1952 – on Mental Defectives (Accommodation) – which was, as its name suggests, not quite as amusing as Mordaunt’s speech.  The same applies to the first use of ‘vagina’ in 1961, in another sober debate, this time on the case of Timothy Evans.

Following a research method set out definitively by Flanders and Swann (below) and with all  the thrill of first writing BOOBS on a calculator I sent a quick text to Professor Cowley: ‘if penis, then what else?’. Gratifyingly, he instantly replied: ‘I have already started…’.

But two methodological problems are soon revealed in this vital research area.  Search for ‘tits’, for example, and you will get an awful lot that are bearded and many more that are blue. The same applies to references to ‘crap’ (the dice game, in debates on gambling).  And then there’s the use of words in direct quotations, usually when quoting abuse directed at people, as in many uses of ‘bastard’, say, or ‘shit’ (first mentioned in the Commons in 1979 quoting the phrase ‘No chicken-shit son of a bitch had better try and stop me’), or ‘bollocks’ (1986), or ‘fuck’ (as in ‘on your fucking knees’, in a Lords debate in 1996).

The second problem that such cutting-edge research faces is the misprint – or more precisely, the scanning errors.  A search for ‘piss’, say, will turn up an encouraging 78 results, with the suggestion that the word was first uttered in debate as far back as 1901. But the majority of such references are typographical errors of Acts and motions ‘pissed’ by the House rather than ‘passed’.  The same applies to a reference in 2004 to a ‘marvellous Euro-wanking make work project’.

These problems aside, the first non-avian outing of ‘tits’ appears to have been during a debate on The Times newspaper in 1981 (‘when put together tits and Toryism are marketable commodities’).  ‘Bollocks’ and ‘Bollocking’ now appears to be parliamentary language (used in both 1986 and 1989 in the Commons and in 2000 in the Lords); ‘piss and wind’ was used in both 1969 and 1972 (both times by Liberals, for some reason), and you can find ‘arse’ in Lords debates in 1965 and 1966 and ‘arse over tit’ in the Commons in 1970 (‘[HON MEMBERS: “Oh!”]’).  Shit – as a literal description – now appears to be perfectly acceptable (‘we are not talking about farm animals but are dealing basically with the urban problem of dog shit’).

The trailblazer in this field appears to be the actor turned parliamentarian, Andrew Faulds, who once memorably noted that Norman St John Stevas ‘lacked the capacity to put a bun in anyone’s oven’ when the House was discussing abortion. He stands, for example, as the first person to make a non-gambling reference to crap in 1979:

The real revelation of the evening was the cultural contribution made by our new colleague—I wonder how long he will hang around with those views—the hon. Member for Dorking (Mr. Wickenden). In my 14 years in this House I have never heard such absolute crap from anybody on any Bench in the House. However, because we want lively contributions, I hope that the hon. Member will join in on future occasions.

I hope that what I said did not cause you any distress, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Needless to say it did, and the Deputy Speaker asked Faulds to ‘use other words’. Faulds replied ‘I have a large vocabulary, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I promise that next time I shall choose my word with much more care’.  So he did, in 1988:

Mr. Faulds: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker——

Mr. Speaker: Well, I will hear it, and then we will get on.

Mr. Faulds: I am most grateful to you, Sir. You will know that most of us in the House—indeed, I would say the whole Chamber, with one or two exceptions—have great admiration for your Speakership and always respond when you make a request that we should withdraw a comment or correct some improper word. Nearly every hon. Member does that. In this unfortunate case, you have made an appeal to the so-called honourable Member and he has not had the guts, the courage or the honesty to respond to it. Unfortunately, I cannot call him an honourable liar, but—we are surrounded by honourable Members this afternoon—I can call him an honourable shit.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member cannot do that; it offends in every possible way. Kindly withdraw, if not the “honourable”, the last word, which I will not repeat.

Mr. Faulds: With my rich vocabulary I could think of two or three worse words, Mr. Speaker, but to oblige you I will withdraw the word “shit”. There are lots of other words that would suitably apply to the hon. Gentleman.

But nothing compares to George Foulkes, who once described Douglas Hogg as a ‘little arrogant shit’. Asked by the Speaker to withdraw ‘that word’, he replied: ‘Which word do you want me to withdraw, Mr. Speaker—little, arrogant or shit?’

UPDATE:

Given that typing rude words into Hansard’s database is a research field in its infancy there were bound to be errors and omissions in any initial report. In addition to the two methodological problems identified above – (a) multiple meanings and (b) misprints – we must now add two others

Firstly mispronunciation by a politician that is subsequently ‘cleaned up’ by Hansard. Anthony Wells helpfully highlighted the classic example of John Speller – then a Defence Minister – who announced to the House, in 2000: ‘We recognised that these cunts in defence medical services had gone too far.’.  In addition, in 2010 Police Minister Nick Herbert responded to opposition questioning with ‘I don’t accept that those cunts…’. Yet in both cases the word ‘cuts’ is what makes it into Hansard.

Secondly, as David Boothroyd pointed out there is the case where Hansard simply do not print the offending word. The prime example here comes from the Kenneth Tynan* of the Commons, Reg Race, who was the first to utter the word ‘fuck’ during a debate on the licensing of sex establishments. Faced with the deprecation of the Deputy Speaker and such unparliamentary language Hansard demured and went with: ‘it was revealed in the national newspapers that Conegate had been operating a list of sexual contacts in the shop, the heading of which was Phone them and … them’

*Kenneth Tynan was not actually the first person to say ‘fuck’ on television. As Joe Moran makes clear in his Armchair Nation, he was the third after playwright Brendan Behan in 1956 and a man in 1959 tasked with painting railings all year round who, when asked whether it was boring, replied: ‘Of course it’s fucking boring’.