MARTIN SAMUEL: The BBC's thought police need to relax

MARTIN SAMUEL: The BBC’s thought police need to relax – language is always evolving and word meanings are often in flux

  • Language evolves and a great number of words are often found to be in flux 
  • A meeting, hosted by the BBC, has set out phrases for commentators to avoid
  • Live commentary is hard and so is being able to turn an apt phrase in real time

Language evolves. Quite literally, it does. We may think the meaning of words is finite and stable but at any time a great number of them are in flux.

You’ve read two in this column already. ‘Literally’ no longer refers to something actually happening. It was misused so frequently, the Oxford English Dictionary recently widened the definition to include use as an emphasiser.

‘Them’ has also broadened, to refer to a non-binary or non-gender-conforming person.

The BBC held a training session over avoiding racial bias with different companies last week

As for ‘flux’, well that’s the point about evolution. It can be rather radical. ‘Flux’ used to mean diarrhoea, from the French flus, meaning heavy flow, and the Latin fluxus meaning loose.

By the early 17th century, however, it had evolved to mean a state of change. Anyone claiming to have been up all night with flux these days would be met with incomprehension. Apart from etymologists, the majority have no idea about archaic definition.

And it was the same with cakewalk, until last week, when broadcasters were advised against its use in commentary, as part of the latest assault on racial bias and common sense.

A meeting, hosted by the BBC but to which broadcasters including Sky, ITV, TalkSPORT, BT Sport and Premier League Productions were invited, set out words and phrases for commentators to avoid, as if derivation is indistinguishable from modern meaning – as if language isn’t constantly on the move, developing not just over centuries but year on year.

The BBC invited Sky, ITV, BT Sport, Premier League production and talkSPORT to the session

The meaning of troll, friend, follow, handle, like, ping, swipe, profile, tablet, viral, text and tweet have all been changed just by the advent of the internet, by smartphones and social media.

And everyone knows the new meanings, everyone understands. When information is ‘tweeted’ nobody, of any generation, thinks it is being sung by birds. We all embrace linguistic evolution. So to return modern phraseology to times centuries past is in open defiance of the way language works.

Take one of the banned phrases: cakewalk. In modern parlance, it is something done with ease.

Yet historically, commentators were told, it was a highfalutin dance performed by slaves with plantation owners as judges, and a grand cake as the prize. But that use was extinct. It wasn’t widely known, wasn’t used in its original context anywhere but in lecture halls for language or history. Outside academia, cakewalk had evolved.

Except here we are in 2020 and it is back with its prejudicial arsenal intact.

A word that had been stripped of its long-forgotten spiteful meaning, has been restored.

Scott Joplin referenced ‘the cakewalk prance’ in his song The Ragtime Dance, and two of the biggest stars of the vaudeville era, George Walker and Bert Williams, would end their shows with a cakewalk.

Phrases to avoid were set out as if derivation is indistinguishable from modern meaning

This is not to justify its use. Walker and Williams were black men forced to perform in black face, who endured terrible racism throughout their careers, often from the white communities that delighted in their shows.

Their cakewalk comes from a horrible time. Yet so does calling an easy task ‘a piece of cake’ or saying that something ‘takes the cake’ – both phrases believed to have been associated with cakewalks. Yet their modern use left them declawed – until now. Rewinding language to source would impact on more than sports commentary.

Our everyday conversations are peppered with words that have nothing to do with the original meanings. ‘Meat’ did not refer to the flesh of an animal but to any solid food, including a plate of vegetables – or even hay.

‘Our guides told us that the horses could not travel all day without rest or meat,’ noted Samuel Johnson in his 1775 work A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. He did not possess carnivorous horses.

Equally it was once frowned upon to be pretty and celebrated to be sly.

‘Pretty’ meant what sly does now, and ‘sly’ referred to a person who was clever or wise.

Other words that have performed U-turns are ‘garble’, which originally meant to sort something out, not to scramble it, and ‘bully’, which was another word for sweetheart, much like darling.

To ‘quell’ was to kill, and a ‘clue’ was a ball of yarn, that one might unravel to negotiate a maze.

If a person was ‘silly’ they were pious, and if they were ‘naughty’ they were poor.

Language is constantly on the move, developing not just over centuries but also year on year

Phrases like ‘no can do’ and ‘long time no see’ were a way of mocking fractured English. So now let’s get offensive. For if we are confusing the meaning of words with their etymology – which is what the BBC and other broadcasters are doing – then all housewives should be bothered by ‘hussy’, used for a woman who is disreputable, lewd or lacking morality. It meant housewife initially.

Just as a ‘husband’ was a man who owned a house, and only became a marital state because men who owned houses were considered a good catch for single women.

Not spinsters, mind, because a ‘spinster’ was merely a woman who spun thread, not an unmarried woman.

It was a lousy job, often performed by those who hadn’t landed a man with a house.

This is what makes policing modern language so dangerous. To stifle the evolution of words and phrases is a crime against humanity’s greatest creation.

The nuances of speech, the subtleties, the way we bond through language, is an achievement to compare to any triumphs of technology or medicine. Of course, other species communicate too.

But they don’t have slang, or poetry, they don’t have Shakespeare or the lyrics of Joni Mitchell.

And they certainly don’t have multiple words for snow – the English language has around 30, so we can presume that the various Inuit dialects count many more than the 50 of popular cliche.

Language is our masterpiece. So why would anyone try to shut it down?

The BBC and other broadcasters are confusing the meaning of words with their etymology

Cos slavery, as Lily Allen might say. Yet if slavery is the issue, it is going to become quite complex describing the shirts of Newcastle or Sheffield United.

‘Stripes’, you see, were not a fashion statement. In the early 15th century they were the marks left by a whip or lash.

And what type of person might receive such punishment? A person with no rights. A member of the lower classes or a slave.

So we can never wholly divorce our modern language from our despicable past.

Yet time makes a better job of it than any moral guardian. Is a word like cakewalk more or less likely to be used now?

More, surely, because this arcane term is now in the forefront of our minds.

It was not before because there are so many ways to convey ease: it’s a breeze, a walk in the park, a cinch, a doss, a doddle, a gimme, a walkover, it’s easy-peasy, easy as pie, easy as falling off a log, it’s shooting fish in a barrel, taking candy from a baby, it’s ABC, easy as 123… cakewalk was fighting a losing battle for some space in an over-crowded market until the thought police turned up and redirected it into public consciousness.

And live sports commentary is hard. To be able to turn an apt phrase in real time under pressure is not as easy as the best make it look.

To then do so while worrying about the arcane derivation of every phrase that pops into a broadcaster’s head is not the route to seamless reportage.

And this is before we factor in new directives about not describing the pace and power of any black players who happen to be quick and physically strong, lest this makes them appear one-dimensional.

To be able to turn an apt phrase in real time under pressure is not as easy as some make it look

Calling the 100 metres is going to be difficult if we have to attribute victory to more than speed.

The same for that moment when Wolves winger Adama Traore flashes past his full back.

Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin will continue receiving credit for his physical attributes because he is white but a black player with similar strengths must receive all manner of caveats and modifiers.

What a bizarre form of equality this is.

If we’re pushing language back to archaic meanings, and denying black athletes their full gamut of talents, it does seem rather a load of old flux.


Referee Keith Stroud was criticised for kissing the match ball as he took the field for Watford’s match with Middlesbrough, in disregard of rules around health and safety. 

Yet forget Covid-19 for a moment, what is Stroud – or any match official – doing making such a show? It is not about him. Nobody is watching it for him. Why is he kissing the ball? 

He’s a referee, not one of the Harlem Globetrotters. Blow your whistle, mate, and try to get a few right. That would make a lovely change.


Jadon Sancho is finding trouble at Borussia Dortmund by arriving late for training. He puts it down to a sleeping problem. 

Without wishing to be pedantic, if he can’t get out of bed in the morning what he would appear to have is a waking problem. 

Sleeping he has mastered. 

Jadon Sancho arriving late for training at Borussia Dortmund shows he has a waking problem


Side-splitting stuff from former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness at the weekend.

He accused Liverpool and Manchester United of blackmail over Thiago Alcantara, saying neither club had contacted Munich and were probably waiting until late in the transfer window to table a cut-price offer. ‘From my point of view, that has no style,’ Hoeness blustered.

Leaving aside a man who was found guilty on seven counts of tax evasion and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison lecturing on style, Hoeness appears to have overlooked Munich’s favourite recruitment tactic: making their interest clear, waiting for the player to run down his contract, then getting him on a free transfer.

Robert Lewandowski, Leon Goretzka, Sebastian Rode and Claudio Pizarro were all collected this way. Any fee that Liverpool or United are prepared to pay will be kinder to the seller than Munich frequently are.


The International Olympic Committee are being urged to expel Iran from the Tokyo Games after the state executed Greco-Roman wrestler Navid Afkari. Human rights groups say he was tortured to produce a confession of murdering a security guard during anti-government protests in Shiraz. The World Players Association and Global Athlete called for Iran’s expulsion.

‘The horrific act of executing an athlete can only be regarded as a repudiation of the humanitarian values that underpin sport,’ read a statement. Yet that implies an athlete – any athlete, really – cannot possibly be guilty of murder and subject to the laws of the state, which isn’t true.

For the IOC to expel Iran, it would have to decide the country was ruled by a murderous, dictatorial regime and that Afkari’s death was a freedom-crushing show of strength, using the execution of a public figure to demonstrate the dire consequences of resistance. So expulsion won’t happen. Mainly because the IOC have repeatedly shown in their dealings with, for instance, Russia and China, that murderous, dictatorial regimes really are their kind of people.


Stuart Attwell booked four players in Newcastle’s win at West Ham – yet none of those offences were as potentially dangerous as Andy Carroll’s first challenge on Tomas Soucek.

Attwell bottled it, and so did the VAR, by not showing Carroll a straight red within 30 seconds of kick-off. He led with his elbow and his forearm soon after that. Either could have caused serious injury. The first foul was a red, the second at least a yellow. Carroll received neither.

Newcastle deserved their win, but Carroll has been getting away with this for too long. He hides behind his size, when there are plenty of big centre forwards who jump without endangering opponents.

Stuart Attwell bottled it, and so did the VAR, by not showing Andy Carroll a straight red

The English game is criminally soft on the extremes of aerial contact and Carroll takes advantage of it. 

Attwell could have done the game a favour this season and set the standard. Instead, he ducked out.

The day we are again left dealing with the type of injuries that nearly killed Iain Hume, the referees will be as guilty as the protagonist.


Jordan Spieth goes into this week’s US Open ranked 67th. Rory McIlroy has not won a major in six years. He has never won a professional tournament at less than 12 under par and when Winged Foot last hosted this competition, Geoff Ogilvy triumphed five over. It’s not the most promising omen.

The fate of the two golfers who were tipped to dominate their sport, however, does put one simple fact into perspective. 

Whatever he may be now, whether he can ever be as consistently great again, Tiger Woods was a phenomenon to stay at the top for so long.

Jordan Spieth goes into the US Open ranked 67th and proves Tiger Woods was a phenomenon

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