Which hurts the most – sticks and stones or words?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” runs the old playground chant.

Children quickly learn that this is not true. Names (or words) can really hurt and cause psychological damage beyond the mere scratches and bruises caused by sticks and stones. The words you use in ‘the heat of the moment’ also reveal much about what you really think.

So, it’s not surprising that supposedly grown-up people, such as Conservative party chief whip Andrew Mitchell and a couple of metropolitan police officers can get embroiled in a name-calling row.

The incendiary word in question is “pleb”, defined in my Collins English Dictionary as:

pleb n 1 short for plebeian. 2 (Brit. informal, often derogatory) a common vulgar person.

In his public apology on Sunday, Andrew Mitchell didn’t seem to mind admitting that he swore at the officers as they prevented him from using the main gate in Downing Street. But he denies using the p word.

The BBC Radio 4 Today show had a discussion on the meaning of the word pleb and whether or not it is an insult. Interestingly, Edith Hall, professor of classics at King’s College London, believes Andrew Mitchell did use the word as it’s “just not the sort of thing a policeman would invent”.

Polly Toynbee in The Guardian agreed, saying the language used was “Flashman public school bully-speak of Mitchell’s generation …’Pleb’ says not just how Cameron and co think, but it defines with deadly accuracy who they govern for.”

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph published the full police log of the incident – what they refer to as Andrew Mitchell’s ‘pleb’ rant. It’s an amusing read, as it is written in what can only be described as police-ese.

Here’s the crux of the matter:

There were several members of public present as is the norm opposite the pedestrian gate and as we neared it, Mr MITCHELL said: “Best you learn your f—— place…you don’t run this f—— government…You’re f—— plebs.” The members of public looked visibly shocked and I was somewhat taken aback by the language used and the view expressed by a senior government official. I can not say if this statement was aimed at me individually, or the officers present or the police service as a whole.

Cartoon ©Martin Shovel*

Of course, the story has been picked up with relish by all the news media and today’s piece in The Sun is worth reading, if only for the made-up posh Indian nosh that Mr Mitchell may have eaten at an upmarket Indian restaurant hours before the incident – including Argy Bhajis, Beef Phall-temper and Pleb-fried rice.

But back to that police log. My favourite section is:

I warned Mr MITCHELL that he should not swear, and if he continued to do so I would have no option but to arrest him under the Public Order Act, saying “Please don’t swear at me Sir. If you continue to I will have no option but to arrest you under the public order act”.

Mr MITCHELL was then silent and left saying “you haven’t heard the last of this” as he cycled off.

How prophetic. Within hours the incident had become pleb-gate.

Right now, it’s Andrew Mitchell’s word against those of the police. But which word?

*Many thanks to writer and cartoonist @MartinShovel (Creativity Works) for letting me use his great cartoon.




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