Best to call people what they want you call them
Spurs fans reappropriate the ‘y’ word
Tottenham Hotspur’s Roberto Soldado flicks the ball with his heel as it is saved by Norwich City’s goalkeeper John Ruddy during their recent Premier League match at White Hart Lane in London – “Visitors have for many decades been surprised by chants identifying the team and its supporters as ‘the Yids’.” PHOTOGRAPH: REUTERS/DYLAN MARTINEZ
It will come as no surprise to learn that, from time to time, football fans can be a tad rude to one another. They have even been known to indulge in a bit of racism. Occasional pronouncements from the English Football Association decrying the use of offensive epithets are, therefore, to be expected. In the past week, the FA has, however, belatedly ventured into a particularly thorny linguistic thicket.
Visitors to White Hart Lane, home of Tottenham Hotspur, have for many decades been surprised by chants identifying the team and its supporters as “the Yids”. That part of north London has long been home to large numbers of Jewish people. For many years, opposing teams enjoyed flinging various anti-Semitic taunts in their direction.
Spurs fans eventually responded by embracing this ugly epithet and wearing it (sometime literally) as a badge of honour. The argument goes that, just as black people reclaimed “nigger” and homosexuals reclaimed “queer”, the Lilywhites have reclaimed “yid”.
This line of reasoning requires only the slightest poke to cause fatal trembling in its flimsy foundations. Whereas Spurs may, perhaps, have a disproportionately high number of Jewish fans, the majority of the team’s supporters have no affiliations with the religion.
No malice may be intended towards the Jews of Finchley or Golders Green. But, surely, only they can decide whether an offensive term is due for ironic reinvention. We all remember the jerk who used to proudly claim he had a black pal at work who enjoyed being called “Chalky”. Did he really?
Anyway, the FA has finally got round to taking a dim view of Spurs’ well-intended experiments in reappropriation. The statement argued that the offending term should not be used in any context at a football ground and that anybody who disobeyed the edict could be liable to punishment.
Spying a chance to delight Colonel Fuming-Rage of the PC Gone Mad Brigade, David Cameron – prime minister and Aston Villa fan – told the Jewish Chronicle that he felt the FA had gone too far.
“You have to think of the mens rea,” he said. “There’s a difference between Spurs fans self-describing themselves as Yids and someone calling someone a Yid as an insult.”
To use the language of prime minister’s question time, I refer the right-honourable member to the answer I gave earlier. This would make sense if every Spurs fan were Jewish. That ain’t so.
It was inevitable that comedian and writer David Baddiel, never unforthcoming on matters Jewish or footballing, would join in the debate. He took a different view to Mr Cameron. “The equivalent case would be a club in Brixton made up mainly of white fans adopting the N-word as their ‘badge of honour’,” he wrote in the Guardian. That’s hard to argue with.
The dispute highlights the real quandaries that linguistic reappropriation can kick up. From time to time, a word makes the full journey from insulting epithet through tolerable euphemism to universal acceptability. The most obvious example is “gay”. With its connotations of effete nonchalance, the word was originally a term of (admittedly mild) abuse. Now, to folk of all sexual inclinations, it flits more comfortably off the tongue than the ever so slightly diagnostic “homosexual”.
The earthier “queer” occupies a murkier territory. Few polite straight folk will feel altogether comfortable using that word to describe any passing gay person. Yet, in certain critical and academic contexts, it is the only word allowed. The terms “homosexual cinema” and “gay cinema” can be stretched to include almost any film the writer wishes to appropriate.
By contrast, “queer cinema” applies to a particular sequence of films directed by an established canon of directors. Get that wrong at a conference and you’ll be shunned when the vol-au-vents come round.
Such crafty verbal manoeuvres swivel the spear about its centre of gravity and turn it back on the attacker. There’s a celebration of difference at work. There’s a demonstration of ways that intolerance can toughen the hide. Unfortunately, reappropriation also invites duller minds to misunderstand the process at work. “If those rappers can call themselves ‘niggas’ then why can’t I call them that,” your typical idiot might suggest.
Happily, the solution to the supposed dilemma is not difficult to disentangle. It is best to call people what they want you to call them. What they call themselves is really neither here nor there. The odd Jewish person may enjoy waving the Y-word around jokingly. Very close non-Jewish friends may even be allowed to join in. But, for the most part, it’s best, even when wearing your most ironic trousers, to avoid chanting racial epithets as part of a massed crowd. Rallies do, after all, have certain negative connotations for Jewish people.
Come on, the Lilywhites.