Oy you, spit out your gum and shut up!

Politeness in the House of Commons takes on many forms but is often exhibited through off-record, negative and positive politeness. Here is an excellent example of how the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, avoids direct face-threatening language as he attempts to chide a noisy and boisterous MP (MacNeill) and remind him that chewing gum is not allowed in the chamber.

The Speaker could have been very direct and ‘on-record’ with his language: “Oy you, spit out your gum and shut up”. Instead he uses language which is considered courteous and polite; some may say excessively ornate. This has the disadvantage of taking more time but which maintains face and also the traditions of the House.

The Speaker
01: o:rder
02: mister MacNeill
03:    ((chamber: laughter))
04: you are an exceptionally boisterous fellow
05: and in the course of your boisterous behaviour
06: er you appear to be chewing some sort of gum
07:    ((chamber: laughter))
08: (it’s a) a very eccentric (conduct)
09: I mean I have great aspirations for you to be a statesman
10: but I think your apprenticeship
11: still has some distance to travel
12:    ((chamber: laughter))
13: mister Stephen Gethins

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Line 04 (you are..) is ‘off-record’ politeness meaning ‘quieten down’. Line 06 (you appear..) is similar; the language used is less direct and face-threatening. (The downside of off-record politeness is that the demands may be misinterpreted.)

Line 06 ‘you appear to be chewing some sort of gum‘ – off-record politeness hiding a directive: spit it out

Line 08 ‘very eccentric conduct’ is a euphemism for ‘bad behaviour’.

Lines 09-11 illustrate well the Speaker’s rhetorical capacity to be indirect and subtle in his put down of politicians. Line 09 indicates positive politeness (I have great aspirations for you.’). This is an appeal to MacNeill’s positive face, the desire to be liked and wanted. Yet at the same time, the lines also convey a subtle ‘put down’ through the use of presupposition. Line 09 presupposes MacNeill is not yet a ‘statesman’, line 10 that he is a novice in the chamber. Line 11 uses a metaphor (distance to travel) to convey the idea that it will be sometime before he improves on this position.

The indirectness of the Speaker’s demands and the rhetorical ornateness of the language provide a light-hearted moment and the chamber signals this through laughter.

House of Commons, 12 October 2016






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