Crimes of the tongue

Published : Sep 07, 2012 00:00 IST

On speech offences and the personal dynamics underlying them.

This is a delightful and instructive survey of dangerous talk among ordinary people in England from the late Middle Ages to the present. Its focus is from the 16th to the 18th century. It reminds one of the compilation Treason and Libel: State Trials, Vol. I edited by Donald Thomson (Routledge, 1972). It covers 10 trials from 1535 to 1817.

The author eavesdrops on conversations and recalls the deadly language that was used in all its vigour. Such chatter collided with the law, as it does in a varied manner to this day. However, we have a ruling of the Bombay High Court that mere vulgar abuse does not constitute insult. At a meeting of shareholders, a proposal was made to expel the accused from the company. He flew in rage and muttered as he left, You damned bloody bastards and cads. This was overheard by some, and the accused was prosecuted under Section 504 of the Indian Penal Code. The court held that no offence was committed; that there was no intention to insult as the words were not to be taken literally but were intended as a mere abuse.

The accused was protected by Section 95 of the IPC. It is exquisitely worded: Nothing is an offence by reasons that it causes, or that it is intended to cause or that it is known to be likely to cause, any harm, if the harm is so slight that no person of ordinary sense and temper would complain of it ( Emperor vs Rangel (1932)-34; Bombay Law Reporter; 282). To the same effect is the Supreme Courts ruling in B.R. Meena vs Mangal Das (1987); Supp SCC; 597. The times have changed. This book is evocative of the vigour of language in former times and the intolerance of the state and the courts. The vigour is gone; the intolerance has survived.

The authors aim is to reconstruct the circumstances of speech offences and the personal dynamics and ideological frictions that may have underlain them. By examining depositions, answers and rebuttals, as well as letters, indictments, accusations and commentary, I hope to calibrate the weight and force of dangerous utterances. Research of this sort is slow and frustrating, with gems of information among many dead ends. But piece by piece it reveals the workings of English justice, the relationship of the Crown and subjects, and the political force of everyday language. It contributes, I hope, to an integration of social and political history, historical socio-linguistics, and the history of law. This indicates the pains he has taken.

In the past, women were singled out as slanderers and visited with severe punishment. Class distinctions vanished. The records are also rich with examples of disorderly speech among people of higher social status. Gentlemen, clerics and members of the professions were expected to watch their language, but sometimes their passion got the better of them. Like villagers and townsfolk, the educated elite occasionally succumbed to offences of the tongues. It was always shocking to hear abusive language from people whose speech was supposed to be civil and polite.

Shakespeares characters were none too civil. In the First Part of King Henry IV, the prince calls Falstaff thou whoreson, obscene, grease tallow catch, and thou whoreson impudent embossed rascal. Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew addresses Grumio, you whoreson malt-horse drudge. Doll Tearsheet in The Second Part of King Henry IV, curses, a pox damn you, you muddy rascal you scurvy companion you poor, base, rascally, cheating, lack-linen mate, away you mouldy rogue, and calls Pistol the foul-mouthdst rogue in England. In The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus berates Dromio, thou whoreson senseless villain, and calls Adriana dissembling harlot, thou art false in all. You whoreson dog, you slave, you cur, shouts King Lear at the hapless Oswald. The disguised Duke of Kent calls the same unfortunate character knave rascal rogue and varlet in a powerful cascade of abuse. Rogue, rogue, rogue, cries Timon of Athens to the philosopher Ademantus. These were dramatised versions of the speech reported in hundreds of defamation cases.

As with slander, sedition has also undergone radical changes in its import. Over the centuries, treason, sedition and slander acquired different connotations, but the tension between freedom of speech and national security concerns persisted.

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