Scots have long deployed humour against impending hardship and the hurricane’s amusing moniker is just another example of that
SO FAR the identity remains unknown of the Scots wit who stared down the full force of the hurricane winds that threatened to wreak havoc upon our fair nation and concluded: “That, my friend, is a Bawbag.” Yet less than 48 hours after christening the first red alert for 165mph winds in Britain’s history after the testicular sac, he (do we really think it was a she?) has inspired a range of T-shirts “Hurricane Bawbag: A load of old wind”, a song performed by The Sensational Alex Salmond Gastric Band and numerous YouTube tributes. Like a small, mildly offensive linguistic gift to Planet Earth, “Hurricane Bawbag” has circled the globe, trending at number one on Twitter.
I’ve been trying to tease out why, as a nation, we took so quickly to Hurricane Bawbag and if that is, in essence, a good thing. The first point in its favour was the fact that Scotland weathered the storm with little or no casualties. Had the heavy winds and driving rain resulted in a multiple pile-up on the M8 and a serious loss of life then it would no longer have felt so funny.
Hurricane Bawbag is an appropriate title for a weather front that sets wind turbines on fire, sends trampolines a-tumbling and scatters Aberdeen’s Union Street with 6ft red Christmas baubles.
Had it swept a family to their deaths or triggered a plane to crash then the, almost, universal licence with which it is now being used would immediately be rescinded. It would no longer be appropriate or even linguistically accurate. A bawbag, as we all know from first-hand experience, is an annoying character who creates mischief or mayhem – he is certainly not a killer.
The second reason for the term’s popularity is the unique place that weather now has in our national life. In the past, football and politics had the potential to spark the nation’s interest from the Borders to the tip of Shetland, but today we live in a far more fractured and fragmented world. The only thing capable of attracting everyone’s interest at once is an event that affects everyone at once and that, for good or ill, is a dramatic weather front.
People enjoy the sensation of being united, of facing a common foe, and during the snow-storms and deep freeze of the past two winters, everyone had a common point of conversation. It was that common point of conversation that allowed Hurricane Bawbag to take flight.
So, we now come to the question of whether the spontaneous adoption by the vox populi of Scotland of a crass term for a scrotum to describe the worst storms in a generation, leads to the edification of the “Best Wee Country in the World” or our further reduction?
One important point to remember is that it hasn’t, yet, been officially categorised by the Scottish Government as such, although Motherwell Council did refer to its common title and it is surely a matter of time before Alex Salmond cracks a quip about it.
The case for the prosecution is that it is a crass, rude and ugly term that might cause embarrassment to our older generation and discomfort to those forced to explain to children the exact definition of a “bawbag”. It arguably adds to the coarsening of public debate and raises questions over what is, or is not, publicly acceptable language.
We now know that bawbag is capable of wriggling, just, under the BBC’s guidelines on profanity as Eddie Mair, through gritted teeth it should be added (one almost sensed his cheeks aflame with national shame), used the term in his report on Thursday evening, while yesterday morning Comedy Dave assured the seven million listeners to The Chris Moyles Show on Radio 1 that it was not a swear word and that his Scots friends “used it all the time”.
For the record, I would argue that it is a swear word, but at the milder end of the spectrum. It is not “damn” or “bloody” which have entirely lost any patina of outrage they once had a century ago, but it is certainly on the bottom steps of a long, twisted staircase leading ever up towards the worst of words. The fact that its focus is the male reproductive organs makes it, arguably, a sexual term; however, the manner of its use renders it utterly asexual. It has, ironically, been neutered.
It is also, undoubtedly, a word taken from the vocabulary of the Scots working class, or unemployed to judge by the focus of so much of the humour that swirled around the internet on Thursday. For example the faux press report documenting the effects of Hurricane Bawbag as it swept through Maryhill causing “approximately £9,000 worth of improvements”.
“The British Red Cross has so far managed to ship 4,000 crates of Bon Accord Pola Cola and two tonnes of Cheese Toasties to the area to help stricken locals. Rescue workers are still searching the rubble and have found quantities of personal belongings including benefit books and bone china from Poundstretchers. Residents in neighbouring Ruchill offered to accommodate those left homeless, but the Maryhill people decided they were better off where they were.”
A council spokesman added: “There has been a Blitz spirit. Everybody’s been pure blitzed. The government has pledged to ensure that bookies, pubs, chip shops and other essential services will reopen as soon as possible.”
Now, again there are two ways to examine this screed. As yet another insulting attack on the underclass, who in these days of cutbacks are destined to be further ground under heel, or as a flippant piece of fun whose subjects would surely be among the first to laugh.
I would side with the former. Yet there is undoubtedly a class element to the humour and Scotland is comfortable with working class heroes. Hurricane Bawbag comes from the same strain of humour that helped to lionise John Smeaton after the foiled terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport. Again, “Smeato”, like Hurricane Bawbag was allowed to grow in stature because of the absence of deaths of innocents from the incidents.
For while I can understand those who will gaze upon the appearance of Hurricane Bawbag in print and shake their head, I would argue that it perfectly illustrates the resilience and humour that Scots have long deployed against any impending hardship. It is firmly wedged within the Scots character that foes should not only be defeated but both mocked and ridiculed. There is plenty of historical precedence for such behaviour. In Scotland, during the 15th and 16th centuries, “flyting” was a popular form of entertainment, the X Factor of its day. It was a form of gladiatorial abuse using words instead of weapons and the more scatological, sexual and abusive the better.
While the use of profanity by a member of the aristocracy could result in a fine of 20 shillings, or, a severe whipping if uttered by a servant, both James IV and James V permitted “court flyting” in which poets fought each other with colourful insults. When the poets William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy “duelled” in front of James IV they not only fenced with filth for the entertainment of their king, but they also pressed into print the earliest use of the word “shit” as a term of abuse. So if the Scots invented a scatological insult now enjoyed the world over, we should have no hesitation in bestowing upon them another one. The author should stand up and take a bow.