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MARTIN SAMUEL: Commentators must not be scared to speak

"Eva Brentnall" (2020-07-20)

It will be picnics next. If Sky can place nitty-gritty on a list of banned phrases, it will not be long before an executive with an overactive search engine and less of an enquiring mind comes across the myth about picnics, and bans them from the commentary lexicon.

A picnic, you see, derives from the abomination of lynching.

It concerns the practice of selecting a black man at random, to be hung. Picnic is short for "pick-a-n*****". Except it isn't.

Picnic is a French phrase, originally pique-nique, which dates to the 17th century and can be found in a 1692 edition of Les Origines de la Langue Francoise by Gilles Menage.

It was an outdoor social gathering in which everybody brought food.

Sky Sports will send a list of prohibited phrases to commentators and reporters this week


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The precise derivations have been lost, although piquer was a French verb referring to a casual style of eating and a nique was a form of cake.

Equally, it may have been one of those fanciful rhyming phrases, that are constructed out of pure playfulness, such as dilly-dally, shilly-shally, hoity-toity and, perhaps, nitty-gritty.

Picnics were not the invention of lynch mobs, although what is more terrifyingly true is these murders often took place in genteel picnic-like settings.

Families were present, including children, and there would be food and speeches and sometimes macabre commemorative souvenirs of the event, amid the bloodlust.

Over time, the incongruous setting and the word became falsely confused and tall etymological tales still resurface.
But picnic did not originate as a code word for lynching.

Black Lives Matter movement has encouraged broadcaster to dissect problematic phrases

As for nitty-gritty, nobody knows.

Dundee City Council referred to it as part of slave traders' language in its reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement last month, but the idea it referred to the detritus at the bottom of a slave ship after its human cargo had departed dates to reports from an equality and diversity course at Bristol Council in 2005.

There is little evidence to support this.
The earliest use of nitty-gritty in print dates from 1937 — long after the last slave ship sailed — in the New York Catalog of Copyright Entries, Part 3 — Musical Compositions. A song — That Nitty Gritty Dance — is attributed to Arthur Harrington Gibbs.

He was a black bandleader — Arthur Gibbs and his Gang — and it is possible nitty-gritty may have African-American origins. But there is no evidence of the slave connotations relayed to Sky's broadcasters.

The reality is that language, music, culture and art evolve and much derivation remains a mystery.
Take arguably the most popular and versatile word in Britain today. The one beginning with F.

We know the origins of most other vulgar words: the P, the S, even the C. But F has multiple possibilities — from the Latin futuo, the German ficken, or the French foutre.

What it certainly is not is a police abbreviation — For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge — concerning crimes of a sexual nature. That falls into the picnic category of linguistic myths.

Even more puzzling is the mildly vulgar word bloody, of which nothing is known. It might be a religious profanity — 'by Christ's blood' or 'by our Lady' — or a reference to menstruation, but there is no evidence of either.

The broadcaster will hold sessions with commentators to discuss language used

Then again we don't know why we say things are bad or big, call girls girls or boys boys, why dogs, rabbits, toads and donkeys are so named, or why to strike something with a foot is to kick it.

Language, and football, is full of mysteries.

Those inside Sky say the problem with commentary directives are not that they arrive in a big file to be memorised, much like match statistics, but that they drop drip-drip, e-mail by e-mail as each new word or phrase is reassessed.

People mean well.

Broadcasters are desperate to be on the right side of history. Yet they must also be able to speak freely and with quickness of thought.

Endless mental calculations about the suitability of popular phrases are not conducive to that.

Neither is the endless checking of unconscious bias.

The Professional Footballers' Association study into the language of commentary is also well-intentioned but potentially counter-productive.

'The narrative of black people's primary value laying in their physicality and not their intelligence dates back to attitudes modern society is determined to eradicate,' the report concludes.

Yes, but it also a fact that Adama Traore is fast and powerful, as well as skilful, so why should a commentator avoid acknowledging this?

Why can't he receive credit for all his attributes?

We don't limit white players this way. Wayne Rooney was, and is, a technically proficient footballer who is often physically stronger than his opponents. He is allowed to be the full package.

Paul Pogba is a fine passer of the ball but also a powerful presence with brawn and brain

Take Paul Pogba.

Capable of hitting the pass of the match, but also a powerful presence with brawn and brain. Yet suddenly half of that sentence is refashioned as a insult, as if there is a finite well of praise and to highlight physicality leaves no space to laud intelligence or technique.

Last season when Jamie Redknapp said of Pogba 'he knows he is bigger and stronger than you' it was pointed out Nemanja Matic was bigger than Pogba, as if it was slander to describe him in athletic terms.

Yet in football, physical strength comes in many shapes and sizes. It is often attributed to N'Golo Kante or Claude Makelele, who are slight figures; it is attributed to Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney, or any number of players in the Liverpool team, from Andy Robertson to James Milner.

If every commentator has to think twice before giving a player due credit, very little is going to get said.
And some of what does will be open to ruinous misinterpretation, as happened to ESPN tennis commentator Doug Adler.

He was calling the Williams sisters at the 2017 Australian Open, when Venus attacked the net to win a point. 'You see Venus move in and put the guerilla effect on, charging,' Adler said.

But a New York Times freelancer heard the word gorilla instead, and publicly accused Adler of racism.

Instead of backing him, ESPN sacked him, and two years later settled out of court for that. Yet the New York Times has never apologised — although it did not publish any follow-up to the initial accusatory tweet — and Adler has not occupied a significant commentary role since.

This tale must send a shiver down the spine of all professional commentators.

As has been pointed out in Adler's defence, guerilla tennis — a rush to the net — was such an established tactic that it featured as a pun in a Nike advert with Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras in 1995. Yet Nike, the players, those with influence in the game, have all been too timid to come to Adler's aid.

ESPN tennis commentator Doug Adler was sacked for using the word 'guerilla' in commentary

In judgmental, unforgiving times, language is increasingly dangerous, open to misuse, misreading.

One tweet ruined Adler. And last month, Rob Parker — who has also worked for ESPN — wrote a column that called for the Masters golf tournament to change its name.

'When you hear anyone say the Masters, you think of slave masters in the South,' he decided.
Really? We know that Augusta National has a problematic past. Black caddies, white golfers; no African-American members until 1990; no women members until 2012; no black players at the Masters Tournament until Lee Elder in 1975.

A former chairman was asked, at a press conference, whether he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. (For the record, he wasn't.) But I've never met anyone, black or white, who considered the Masters name a reference to slavery.

What then of British Masters golf, the ATP Tour Masters tennis, Masters Historic Motor Racing, European Masters snooker, European Masters athletics?

All tributes to slavery, too?

Parker attempted to enlist Tiger Woods' help in this fight against his favourite golf tournament. Considering the article appeared on Deadspin, this might be a harder sell than he imagines given their article from June 2, headlined: 'Tiger Woods hates being black.' He probably doesn't.
He probably just hates being told what to think and say on every issue, as if all black people must think in accord.

Rob Parker attempted to enlist Tiger Woods' help in this fight against The Masters tournament

When the debate around Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was reignited last month, Bill Sweeney, chief executive of the RFU, was swift to say that he no longer sings it.

He directed those who do to an interview with Josephine Wright, a professor of music and black studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio, ranked the 66th best liberal arts college in the United States. 

And Wright is a distinguished academic.

It doesn't mean she's right, though. It doesn't mean if every cultural identifier sits in its box, it is healthy for the races, because then Eminem can't rap and Elvis Presley can't sing the songs of Arthur Crudup and Terry Callier doesn't record possibly the finest folk album ever made, featuring many traditional English works, and Lead Belly doesn't record songs from Francis James Child's 19th century book, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and make them his own.

As long as the cultural past is treated with knowledge and respect, we're here to mix it all up and get closer.

Language, music, art is there to bridge divides, not create them. The more we limit, the more we caution, the more we make ourselves scared to speak, or sing, the more isolated we become. And then nothing matters.

  Punish clubs who pay up late 

Is it too late for the Football League to do the right thing by Stevenage?

They have fallen into the National League on the wicked points per game calculation, with Macclesfield surviving, despite being deducted 13 points for late payment of staff across this season. 

Belatedly, League Two clubs have recognised this isn't fair and there is a movement to revisit Macclesfield's punishment.

It probably won't stand up in court if challenged because with the league curtailed, the precise sanction to relegate Macclesfield is known — and that isn't right, either. 

Even so, shouldn't better regulation come from this — with those who default on wages having to apply for re-election at the end of the season, no matter where they finish? 

Stevenage have fallen into the National League on the wicked points per game calculation

  Playing catch-up will be a big test of Chelsea mettle 

Manchester United are at home to Bournemouth at 3pm on Saturday.

Wolves play Arsenal at 5.30pm. Meaning when Chelsea kick off against Watford at 8pm in the evening, they could be sixth. Back to fourth if they win but, even so, that's pressure. 

  Crass to dump financial issues on Premier League

Anyone fancy owning a Championship football club?

It seems quite easy. Buy it and then, four weeks later, place it into administration. Then get the Premier League to bail you out.

This would appear to be the stunning business plan of Julian Knight, the chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, whose opportunistic reaction to the carnage at Wigan was particularly useless, even by his low standards.

'What's needed now is leadership from the very top of the pyramid to help save Wigan and the jobs of those who work for it,' Knight declared.

This ignores the fact Wigan were subject to a takeover by the Next Leader Fund on June 4, having been previously owned by the International Entertainment Corporation, a group fronted by a professional poker player.

What could go wrong?

Gerald Krasner, one of three administrators, confirmed there is no prospect of Next Leader Fund putting any money into the club. It even seems as if the buying and selling groups might be linked. Krasner is promising some 'incredible' revelations in the future.

Julian Knight's opportunistic reaction to the carnage at Wigan was particularly useless

So why is this the Premier League's responsibility?

It is most shallow to repeatedly blame football's ills on the elite division, and the mediocre minds at the DCMS committee rarely disappoint.

Perhaps, on the subject of executive leadership, Knight might instead recall his old friend Rick Parry, the Football League chairman, to explain how this rogue takeover came to be sanctioned?


Mercedes will display a special black livery at the Austrian Grand Prix to combat racism.

Of course, they had a real chance to do that some 75 years ago, as Daimler-Benz. It just needed more than a coat of paint.

  Reds' sponsor not in line with club 

As this country prepares to offer a way out to three million Hong Kong residents faced with draconian attacks on their freedoms from China, it is worth remembering the role played by Standard Chartered, Liverpool's sponsors.

They make much of their profit in Asia and openly expressed support for the new security laws. Much is made of the politics of Liverpool, both city and football club, but let's not pretend.

Jurgen Klopp may get the city, but those who employ him — let's just say they are comfortable in their world, too.


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