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Mind the gaffe, Ma’am, he quipped….

January 5, 2017


Ma’am is an interesting word. If you didn’t know otherwise, you might think it’s Arabic. The apostrophe should signify the mysterious vowel that you can only pronounce if you nearly swallow your throat. At least that’s how it seems to those of us who are not confident Arabic speakers. It’s also the word flunkeys use to address the Queen.

The Daily Mirror reported yesterday that a soldier nearly shot our monarch when she was having a late-night wander through her garden, also known as the grounds of Buckingham Palace:

The Queen was once found strolling palace gardens at 3am by a guardsman, who told her: “Bloody hell, Your Majesty. I nearly shot you”, it has been claimed.

According to an account of the astonishing encounter, Her Majesty quipped in response: “That’s quite all right.

“Next time I’ll ring through beforehand so you don’t have to shoot me.”

Other reports said that the guardsman expected to be reprimanded for his breach of protocol. I’m not sure why. The “bloody hell” bit was entirely appropriate. Most likely she’s heard that phrase many times during her long marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh. In such an intimate encounter, perhaps he later thought that he should have called her Ma’am.

Be that as it may, the Royal Family has a special relationship with a number of words, of which ma’am is but one.

It’s short for Madam. In Britain, it’s mainly used to address the Queen and other female royals, although in recent years it’s been adopted by superior officers in the police and armed forces. In America, its use is wider. In customer service, for example, and by John Wayne in Westerns.

We Brits, on the other hand, if we are serving a female customer, have traditionally addressed her as “Madam”, sometimes with a slight Blackadderesque sneer in our voices, especially if we are addressing someone whom we perceive belongs to the lower orders.

So much social nuance in the presence or absence of one little apostrophe.

Another curiosity is the use in the royal context of “quip”. According to newspaper convention, the royals don’t make jokes. They quip. The only other place you would find this word outside the dictionary is on a Scrabble board.

There’s social nuance in quip too. A quip is the kind of inoffensive attempt at humour issuing from Ma’am and other members of the royal family. The sort of humour that’s may not be very funny, but provokes squeals of hysterical laughter from the general public when it comes from the mouths of our social superiors, or the side of the mouth in the case of Prince Charles.

Anything stronger, and potentially offensive, particularly when spoken by the Duke of Edinburgh, is known as a gaffe. It could often be interpreted as racist, as in references to people with slitty eyes, and sometimes as personally offensive. The sort of remark that would have provoked a duel among the upper classes two hundred years ago, and these days, particularly when the recipient is drunk, might result in a Glasgow Kiss – the term often used in Scotland to describe using your head to flatten another person’s facial features.

But the Duke of Edinburgh is a National Treasure, so he can say what he likes, and does. Anyone attempting to rearrange his face is likely to get shot.

The Duke has a couple of other things going for him that enable him to get away with his risqué humour. In the era of Trump and Farage, political correctness is under threat. Calling a spade a spade, especially if the spade happens to be of non-Caucasian ethnic origin, is quite the coming thing.

At 95, he’s also the patron saint of grumpy old people who think they can say anything rude or offensive, and be forgiven on grounds of their age. My mother had a friend who, as she entered old age, used to say some outrageous things. Everyone thought that this was very funny. She was considered a dotty old lady. These days old people are not called dotty. They are suffering from dementia.

All the evidence suggests that the Duke most definitely isn’t afflicted by that condition. He’s as sharp as a pin. And he’s been coming up with his special brand of witticism since way before he entered the ranks of the aged. So you could argue that he has no excuse beyond his royal immunity.

The rest of us don’t make gaffes. We commit hate crimes. We’re shamed on Twitter. Or possibly we’re offered a job with the Daily Mail.

Which goes to show what a sweet life our Royal Family lives. Not only do they live in palaces and fly around the world in the utmost luxury, but they get to have their very own words, and if they’re very old, they can say what they bloody well want (except the Queen, of course). And the rest of us aren’t that badly off, living as we do in a country where we can mock our rulers without being locked up for our pains.

I don’t suppose this post will have done my chances of a knighthood any good. But if I’ve helped a Japanese tourist wandering in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace to interpret a chance remark by a nearby courtier that “Ma’am’s made a quip about Philip’s gaffes”, then I’ll happily sacrifice the gong in the cause of international cultural understanding.

Get well soon Ma’am.

From → Social, UK

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