My wife – a wise owl, who never tweets (at least in the internet sense) -remarked recently, apropos of nothing, “We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t fallible.” Despite the double negative in that statement, she had offered me a pearl of wisdom and I knew what she meant.
Earlier we had been discussing our Prime Minister’s comment across the House of Commons Chamber accusing the Leader of the Opposition of being “A big girl’s blouse”. Things being as they are, the Prime Minister who said this in early September may not be the Prime Minister by the time you read this. Come to think of it, the Leader of the Opposition may not be the same person either. At present they are
In order to impress my wife, and offer her a pearl in return, I felt I should research the origin of the phrase “a big girl’s blouse”. I understand the phrase to be an insult directed at a man who is seen to be cowardly or weak, a man lacking in cojones. I am not sure if Mr Johnson has quite caught up with the way things are gender-wise in the 21st century, but I imagine that a number of people, male and female, found his words inappropriate, whether whispered or shouted. At least one female politician responded by telling him that if he thought women were weak, he would soon discover things to be quite different come the next election. Well, those are not quite her words, but I am sure you get the gist.
To my research: t’internet tells me the expression originated in the north of England in the 1960s and was popularized by northern-based television programmes such as the sitcom “Nearest and Dearest.” I don’t remember the programme, but Wikipedia tells me it featured Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel as brother and sister Nellie and Eli Pledge who inherit a pickle-bottling factory. Others will be more expert on this programme than I am. Personally, I was surprised to find that the origin of the phrase is so recent.
Dear reader, a confession. In order to produce this pearl of wisdom for her, I had to enter the words “big”, “girl” and “blouse” into my internet search engine and some of the results which appeared are wholly unsuitable as illustrations for a blog as genteel as this one. But those images were the personal sacrifice I felt I had to make in order to show my wife that I was at least able to match the pearl of wisdom she had offered me.
If you have read this far, you may wonder where all this is leading. Not much further, you will be pleased to learn. Some years ago, as head teacher of a secondary school in Orkney, I was keen to encourage our students to participate in debating. Debating sensibly (with humour allowed, of course) is a great way to learn to see things from the opposite point of view to your own, whether or not you are a young person. Our students often travelled long distances – accompanied by their long-suffering, energetic and enthusiastic teachers – in order to participate in country-wide debating competitions. They often performed well despite hours on the ferry and in the train.
Formal and informal debates are a great way for all of us to learn the art of civilised discourse. I often wonder what example our politicians in the debating chambers of London and Edinburgh are setting to our young people. Are they switching them on to what should be the stimulating world of political debate, or switching them off? Worse still, are they just encouraging the next generation of politicians and the public generally to shout angrily at one another from fixed positions? Remember Desmond Tutu’s wise words: “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”.
Words matter. In the wild west of the internet or in today’s toxic political arena, calling someone a “big girl’s blouse” is a fairly mild, if sexist, comment, and it’s the general angry tone of debate I’m concerned about rather than individuals’ sincerely held views. But it still matters who is making the comment, where they are making it and who is listening. Doesn’t it?