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A Fairy Tale of New York

December 5, 2019

What is everyone’s favourite bit of the Pogues’ song ‘A Fairy Tale of New York’? It is of course the bit where Kirsty McColl and Shane McGowan start flinging abuse at each other – ‘You’re a bum, you’re a punk’/ ‘You’re an old slut on junk’ etc. My choir will be performing this song at our Christmas concert in the Rose and Crown and we’re all looking forward to singing that part. Except… a number of choir-members have taken exception to the use of the word ‘faggot’. And so our verison of the song has been bowdlerised to: ‘You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy braggart’.

Now, I have to admit that braggart is a clever alternative there. It is a perfect rhyme and fits the general sense, even if the register is a tiny bit off. If one has to bowdlerise, that’s good bowdlerising. But here’s the question: does one have to bowdlerise? Faggot is of course an offensive term for a gay person. But is it offensive in that context? I can’t see that it is: it occurs in a drunken row between two washed-up old wrecks and the guy addressed isn’t even gay. It’s a random, meaningless insult, wholly in tune with the spirit of that part of the song. And I don’t think the Pogues’ immortal words should be altered.

But do weigh in if you disagree.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    In my youth it wasn’t unheard of for women who were, or seemed to be, getting on a bit to be called silly old faggots. Whether this related to the meatballs or bundles of sticks I don’t know.
    As an aside in the book of Serpico it was mentioned that “scumbag” was the worst thing one cop could call another. It meant a used condom but is now apparently so inoffensive that a choir can sing it with no problem.

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    This is interesting and chimes with something I have been reading only this week, namely, ‘Chastise’, Max Hastings’s outstanding new history of the Dambusters raid.

    A passage from his introduction bears quoting in full, to illustrate how sensitivities to words can change over time, but at the same time how we must not let modern-day sensibilities get in the way of an honest and truthful understanding of the way things were in different times.

    Hastings says, ‘Since starting this book I have been repeatedly asked whether it is an embarrassment to acknowledge the name of Gibson’s dog [the ‘N’ word],which became a wirelessed codeword for the breaching of the Mohne. A historian’s answer must be; no more than the fact that our ancestors hanged sheep-stealers, executed military deserters and imprisoned homosexuals. They did and said things differently then. It would be grotesque to omit [N word] from a factual narrative merely because the word is rightly repugnant to twenty-first century ears’.

    This is a powerful and important point. I appreciate that the historian’s duty to accuracy is different from a reference to a potentially offensive word in a popular song, but it seems to me that if we constantly censor the present by our own delicate standards, we are being less than respectful of the past simply because tastes have changed over time.

    • Hi Mark. Yes, good example. I sometimes think we have become superstitious about words, viewing them as magic spells that have the power to harm all on their own.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Wonder if the “weaponisation” of language in recent years is an outcome of the internet? Millions of people now read more contentious material than the newspapers used to print and can share their discontent much more easily.

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