how to use slang in politics

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The writer is a professor in the department of classics and ancient history at Durham University

When is a difference of opinion only as great as a “navvy gravvy”? More importantly, what on earth does it mean? This bizarre colloquialism broke in on the UK’s political debate this week.

On Wednesday, illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson found himself on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, denying that a chasm yawned within his party over the government’s Rwanda deportation bill. The disagreement was inconsequential, he claimed: “that’s the difference, the navvy gravvy, the inch of difference between us on the Conservative benches . . . the navvy gravvy of difference is of emphasis, of nuance”.

The BBC had to consult an expert lexicographer, who in turn had to look it up. Navvy gravvy turns out to be dockyard workers’ argot for a slim shaving (much less than an inch), removed from a component of equipment to fit it into its designated aperture. It is rumoured to be naval slang (although my ex-Navy husband had never heard of it).

Tomlinson’s deployment of the phrase lacked finesse. He introduced it twice with a formulaic cue, “Listen to the end of my answer”— in politicians this always suggests pre-scripted phrasing. He changed his syntax to shoehorn it in, stressed it acoustically and repeated it immediately.

Perhaps he intended to divert attention from the real issue (for a short while he succeeded as #navvygravvy spread across social media). More likely, he was attempting to signal his fluency in demotic English, posing as one of the lads or signalling to the harbour dwellers in his Dorset constituency.

Using slang is a time-honoured tool of Tory rhetoricians. Winston Churchill’s mantra for a war-battered Britain was KBO, “Keep buggering on”. Margaret Thatcher accused opponents of being “frit”. Boris Johnson often resorts to playground patois, calling Jeremy Corbyn “a big girl’s blouse”, climate change activists “uncooperative crusties” and marking the demise of his premiership with the demotic, ungrammatical epitaph “them’s the breaks”.

Wildly contrasting speech registers can have a witty rhetorical impact — but it takes force of personality and preferably cut-glass Etonian diction to pull it off. The hapless Tomlinson could not manage it. But, like Johnson, his degree was in Classics; perhaps he still consults the ancient handbooks on public oratory. Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric recommends the use of homely phrases to set citizen audiences at their ease — sparingly. But Aristotle sensibly insists that colloquialisms be generally familiar, which “navvy gravvy” certainly is not.

Slang in political discourse can seriously affect leaders. The usually formal Antonis Samaras had a rare moment of popular appeal in 2013 after the then premier of Greece was caught unwittingly on camera advising himself in the most obscenely rustic language to copulate with his own head (he had messed up a speech).

Vladimir Putin’s rise in Russia was facilitated by judicious use of graphic slang. In 1999 he promised to destroy Chechen rebels by “rubbing them out in the outhouse” if he found them in the toilet. In 2007 he declared that, instead of the Pytalovsky district claimed in a territorial dispute, the Latvians would receive “ears of a dead donkey”. Yet, over the past 15 years, since he consolidated his power, Putin’s public language has become more decorous, as he seems to think befits his supremacy.

The American poet Walt Whitman believed that slang is a radical, vitalising instrument in the culture of a nation, “the lawless germinal element”. It “has its bases broad and low, close to the ground”, arising among “the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea”. Whether Tomlinson’s struggle to sound like a dockworker will revitalise this nation is open to question. The margin between producing persuasion or derision in an audience by rhetorical ploys is after all, just a navvy gravvy.


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