Since the General Election on June 8, 2017, and the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower Fire, I have been listening to and watching media broadcasts more than usual, and have noticed two significant changes in language use.
One change is limited to a very specific occasion, though it has been growing in popularity over the years. It is quite consciously deliberate and requires a degree of determination, even courage, on behalf of the speaker. The other change is usually less obvious, though it too requires a slight degree of determination (if less planning than the other one). The second one has been around for a lot longer and is growing in popularity (and acceptability).
The Conscious Invention
Following the general election MPs are required to swear an Oath of Alliegance to the Queen as Head of State. (As has sometimes been pointed out, it is ironic that after “the people have spoken”, the elected leader has to go to an unelected aristocrat to ask permission to form a government.) A small, but growing number of MPs are objecting to this oath, and the Republican movement are (quite reasonably in my view) asking for an alternative oath to be made available for those MPs who do not wish to swear alliegance to the Queen.
As such an oath is not yet available, a few MPs have had to be quite creative in their language usage, to comply with the current requirements.
Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn, took the oath under protest. He prefaced his allegiance oath with a denial of its validity:
“As a republican by conviction, and under protest…I swear by almighty god that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her majesty…”
Labour MP for Derby North, Chris Williamson, called for an elected head of state before taking the oath to serve his constituents. His denial was more mitigated, but is was still a denial. The preface and the clause of explanation achieves that.
“Like my father before me, I believe in an elected head of state, so I take this oath in order to serve my constituents…”
The pattern of preceding or following the oath with an explanation of the true reasons for swearing it – a necessity in order to allow me to serve my constituents – started to emerge as the new pattern.
Labour MP for North West Durham, Laura Pidcock, took the affirmation to in order represent the interests of her constituents: “I, Laura Pidcock, was elected by the people of North West Durham to represent their interests, I therefore take this affirmation in order to do that…”
Labour MP for Leeds East, Richard Burgon, took the affirmation in order to represent his constituents: “I, Richard Burgon, was elected by the people of Leeds East to represent the interests of the people of Leeds East, and therefore make the following affirmation in order to enable me to do that…”
Many commentators have understandably been expressing their sympathy for the victims and survivors of the Grenfell Tower Fire tragedy. As often happens in public statements following major tragedies reported in the media, commentators begin by saying something like: “First let me begin by saying how shocked I am to hear about this horrific event and that my thoughts and prayers are with those …”
However, what has been happening in recent years is that the “prayers” are disappearing. It is becoming increasingly common for thoughts to be sufficient as people are realising at least one, or more of the following:
- I don’t pray, and it would be hypocritical to pretend that I do.
- I don’t pray, and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I do as I don’t want to appear religious.
- The vast majority of the country no longer believes in prayer.
- Pray is ineffective anyway.
- Praying to a god who allowed this to happen might appear, not only to be useless, but obscene.
These two changes show how republicanism and atheism are slowly beginning to impact language use.