Daddy, what’s a mong?

by Tom Albrighton 19 October 2011 Uncategorised

I don’t think anything has changed my outlook on life so much as having a daughter. If you’ve got kids (and if you haven’t, you might want to bail out of this post right now), you already know what I’m talking about. And in the current phase (aged 5), one of the biggest things is the questions.

They really are relentless. They make me realise, first and foremost, how much I learnt from my own parents – or, to put it another way, how little I found out for myself. And you never know when an absolute killer is going to be sprung on you. Lying on the floor while my daughter allegedly ‘went to sleep’ one night, I was asked, in sequence, ‘Daddy, who made the world?’, ‘Daddy, what’s outside space?’ and ‘Daddy, what happens when we die?’

Treading on eggshells

Answering things like that for someone with a vocabulary of 2000 words is a challenging tutorial in simple, cogent expression. But it’s also a real eye-opener in terms of received ideas, adult assumptions and cultural taboos. What should a child learn, and what should they not learn? What is likely to intrigue, confuse or disturb the child?

The problem is that innocuous topics can quickly slide into Kafkaesque trauma. For example, I was pleased to confirm that, given the size of the universe, the odds on aliens existing were pretty much certain. Then I had to allay the fear that they’d be turning up at our house.

After a few months of that, you’re running a mental slide-rule over every issue and concept that might come up, wondering if you should explain it – or if you could. Homosexuality, religion, burglars… there are thorny topics at every turn.

Fcuk obscenity

One thing you can count on is that the child’s questions will cut right to the chase in a way adults’ just don’t – or just daren’t. That came to mind when I read Andy Nattan’s recent post about swearing in copy. In my comment to the post, I pointed to French Connection’s ‘fcuk’ campaign. Clever as those lines may be, I’d have rejected them myself, because I would have heard a little voice asking, ‘Daddy, what does that say?’

Well, what does it say, clever clogs? The sophisticated adult sees the joke, but the cruder meaning is still there, underneath. And talking to children makes you realise how basic, how atavistic, our brains really are. Seeing their unbridled selfishness, hopeless irrationality and vicious spite, you wonder if that’s what we’re like, underneath it all. Arguably, to play with base meaning is to unlock that side of ourselves, so carefully buried over years of growing up.

A mong, friends

The little voice piped up again when I was weighing the two sides of the Ricky Gervais ‘mong’ debate. Gervais maintains that ‘mong’ doesn’t denote ‘disabled person’ any more, and that he should be able to use it, for laughs, with impunity – as he’s been doing on his Twitter feed.

Saying 'mong' makes you look a bit of a spaz

There’s no doubt he’s playing with fire – if vindicated, he could open the floodgates for all those other fun-to-say but deeply regrettable terms of my youth – like  ‘spazmo’, ‘flid’, ‘spakka’, ‘cripple’, ‘cambo’ and so on, ad nauseam.

When I was younger, and didn’t really give a fcuk about very much at all, I’d have thought that was brilliant. Free speech! Let’s just have a laugh! No censorship! But now, I just fear having to answer the question: ‘Daddy, what’s a mong?’

Just what is a mong, Ricky? We’ve heard a lot about what it’s not, but you’ve only had to deal with righteously indignated adults, not straightforwardly curious children. So no-one’s yet asked that simple, devastating question. So how will you answer, facing a five-year-old? Er… a silly person?

Humbug. We all know what a mong is, just like we all know what ‘fcuk’ says. In the eyes of a child, cynicism shows up as clear as day.

Do I sound like a prude? I’m not, really. I’m just someone who takes the power of language seriously, not least in its ability to shape young minds. As Morrissey sang, ‘heavy words are so lightly thrown’. Before we throw them, we should think about where they’ll land.

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  • http://www.justtherightwords.co.uk Gareth Cook

    Brilliantly put, Tom. I couldn’t agree more. Maybe all it takes to puncture the swollen balloon of arrogance displayed by Gervais is the disarming innocence of a small inquisitive child. I don’t have kids myself, but I think that ‘small voice’ concept is well worth bearing in mind whenever wielding words, in anger or in fun.

  • Brian Adams

    As an opinionated dyslexic in a blog of language giants, you will have to excuse my poor grammar in retort to your post :o)

    As a parent I disagree.

    Ricky Gervais is a comedian for adults, he doesn’t have a nick toons cartoon called ‘Happy Little Mongs’ so the chances of a child watching or seeing him say this word are minimal to none.

    To argue that it is not the child specifically saying the word Mong that is dangerous, but the risk of making it popular enough for others to use is also flawed in my humble opinion. Comics like Bernard Manning and Roy Chubby Brown from the days of old school working men’s clubs, to the more recent mainstream exploits of Frankie Boyle have all used taboo material along with a full array of swear words id hate my children to hear or repeat, but I’d never want them to be silenced, as comedy should be the last bastion of true free speech.

    As a parent I have, and will continually be asked uncomfortable question by my kids as they grow up, and sometimes my answer has to be as basic as “oh that’s a naughty adult word, please don’t say that again or your be in trouble”. I would however rather this situation and rise to the challenges of parenthood, then see my children grow up in a society that has got so caught up in political correctness that we even stifle comedians in what they can say or do to entertain those who wish to watch them.

  • Brian Adams

    First correction I spotted myself haha:

    To argue that it is not the child specifically *hearing Ricky* saying the word Mong that is dangerous,

    :o) sorry, but I did warn you

  • http://www.abccopywriting.com/blog Tom Albrighton

    @Brian

    Thanks for commenting. Here are my thoughts.

    Gervais isn’t saying ‘mong’ on stage, or after the watershed. He’s saying it on Twitter, which is a completely open channel. His feed is as accessible as the BBC homepage. Kids can use the internet.

    I don’t have a problem with my daughter asking me what ‘standard’ swear words mean, or why people say them. She’s already heard me say plenty myself. I’ve got answers for that and I’m not bothered about it.

    Words like ‘mong’ are fundamentally different.

    My honest explanation of the word ‘mong’ would be ‘a nasty word for a disabled person’. For my daughter, that’s the sort of person she sees every day, at the special school next door to hers. I’m grateful that she gets a chance to mix with those kids, because it helps her work through her (natural?) trepidation about people who look, sound or act differently from her. Thanks to Ricky Gervais and his fans, I’d have to explain why an insulting word for disabled people is funny. I don’t really need that and I don’t think anyone else does either.

    For my money, ‘mong’ is hate speech, pure and simple. And what people call ‘political correctness’ is just using words that reflect a basic courtesy and respect for those around us. Not so much ‘correct’ as simply ‘right’.

    But that’s just my opinion.

  • http://www.rowwrites.com Rowena

    I remember calling kids at school a ‘spazzer’. I had no idea of its origins, just that it meant someone who was being stupid. I never used it to describe someone with learning difficulties (or mentally handicapped, as the term was back then – a term that is now mostly frowned upon). After all, words passing into common usage do move away from their origins, over time, until their origins are forgotten. If I step off a funfair roundabout, I may feel giddy, but that doesn’t make me insane, or possessed by a god.

    That said, I had a debate with someone once who claimed that I shouldn’t be offended by him calling me a Paki, because he had a mate from Pakistan who described himself in that way. I had to point out that I had as much connection to Pakistan as he did, and that moreover the word itself carried heavy negative connotations from the way in which it was normally used. But then I also wondered why that word had so much power to offend, and yes, it was down to cultural reference and personal experience. He left that conversation a little more aware of the risk of casually using such a loaded word. I left the conversation a little more inclined to take words in the way that the user intends them – no more, no less.

    I guess I’m trying to say that words are tricky things, and often loaded with personal connotations and experience that some people are aware of and sensitive to, and some not. Both sides could sometimes use a little more sensitivity to the other’s perspective, if you ask me.

  • Brian Adams

    Thanks Tom.

    It was his use of the word Mong in the Science stage show that first kicked off the debate, as he used it to describe Susan Boyle. Ricky in reaction to the debate has been using the unique live interaction tool of twitter to defend himself and his use of the word, albeit in his defiant often amusing persona.

    Your right kids can use the Internet, and the internet gives them access to far greater harmful adult material then what Twitter offers (even with parental filters on a personal computer). But to focus on Twitter solely the user needs to follow or seek out that individual to see what they are saying, and it’s not just comedians they can find, porn stars, adult websites, racist groups to name a view, all available to follow making public their words and images we wouldn’t ideally want our young ones to see.

    When I was at school there was a famous charity shop then called ‘The Spastic Society’. The word Spastic soon became a playground name used by us children at other children as an insult. I’m sure the word ‘Spastic’ wasn’t intentionally created to be demeaning word, but we the masses changed that words meaning until they eventually gave up and rebranded as Scope.

    The point I am trying to make is that even without comedians using derogative words kids will eventually hear them and potentially use them, and that’s where I believe it is our duty as parents to tackle this head on regardless of how uncomfortable the conversation is.

  • http://www.benlocker.co.uk Ben Locker

    I think your photo caption sums it up neatly.

    Gervais wasn’t being malicious, but he has made himself look a bit of tit – and got acres of free publicity into the bargain.

    Frankly, why would kids call each other ‘mong’ and ‘spaz’ when calling each other ‘a bit of a Gervais’ or ‘you total Ricky’ is much more offensive.

  • http://www.butterflycopywriting.com Lucy Smith

    You could always revert to my dad’s old standby when I asked tricky questions: “I don’t know, ask your mother”.

    Or try, “he’s a very silly man who hasn’t had enough attention paid to him for a very long time, so he’s using a word that upsets people to make people pay him some attention again.” But if you try that one, be prepared for “Why?”…