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SPEECH ACTS

Why is Paki more offensive than Yank, Aussie or Kiwi on the sports field' It is surely a question of tone, intent, context and historical baggage. A British high court has taken all this into account and ruled that the word, Paki, is racially offensive. An English white football fan chanting the word along with his mates at a match was picked up by the police for abusive hooliganism. He was acquitted by the local magistrate, for whom the word was no more than a harmless abbreviation. But the case was reopened recently under the football offences act 1991, and the word was deemed racially offensive. The shorter Oxford English Dictionary has thought so since much earlier, and the fact that the word figures in the OED shows how much a part of everyday English it has become now. The judge who gave the latest ruling drew attention to the context of aggression in which the word was used by the fans, as a “prelude to violence”. “You are just a town full of Pakis,” the Port Vale fans were chanting against Oldham Athletic. And only a couple of years ago, there were violent riots in the northern town of Oldham. Significantly, the confrontations there were not only between white and Asian youths, but also between the latter and the police. And this is why “Pakis” and “Yanks” are radically different speech acts. Anybody watching a cricket match between India and Pakistan or its aftermath would know how the cheering, jeering and revelries could go well beyond sports.

Outlawing a racist word might be difficult to implement though — particularly by the British police force. The “diversity directorate” of its metropolitan wing has itself described the force as “institutionally racist”. Moreover, in the case of football fans, it might be difficult to monitor the linguistic behaviour of hordes. The judge has also mentioned in his ruling that each case had to be considered on its individual circumstances. This is wise, and important. When the offence has to do with the feelings and sentiments of others, then the question of intent or effect has to be carefully weighed against questions of interpretation and subjectivity. When Mr George W. Bush refers to “Pakis” in all presidential seriousness, it is a gaffe born out of ignorance, rather than a deliberate act of aggression, even if it ends up offending a whole lot of Pakistanis. Yet, for an Asian in an English town like Leicester — mad about football, but racially mixed and tense — it would definitely be easier to enjoy a match if he knows that the men and women sitting around him cannot officially get away with calling anybody a Paki.

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