A new form of racism—if that's what it is—is directed by white people at pink peopleby Sam Leith / June 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
“Daddy, daddy,” your children will one day ask, “what did you do in the gammon wars?” Each generation has its time of trial. And for this one, it is the great debate over whether “gammon”—a Corbynite slur aimed at the sort of hypertensive white man in late middle age whose angry Brexit face is to be seen in the audience at Question Time—is, as some claim, racist; or, as others claim, classist; or, as its users claim, no more than a woundingly spot-on description of the skin tone of an enraged Daily Mail reader.
Nice to meet a food-based term of abuse. There aren’t many. Mad people are “nuts.” Bad films are “cheesy” or “schmaltzy.” “Coconut” has had some purchase in the racial arena. “Watermelon” (green on the outside, pink on the inside) is sometimes used to troll eco-lefties. Your grandmother might have called you a “silly ’nana” on the grounds that bananas are intrinsically amusing. But I can’t think of many others.
Is “gammon” racist? We can leave aside the old argument about whether reverse-racism is a thing. There isn’t much of a lexicon of black-on-white deprecation in the UK—you’ll find “honky” and “cracker” in the US, but we have no equivalents. And here, anyway, is a term of abuse used towards white people by (predominantly) other white people. Rather, it’s racism—if that’s the word—directed by white people at pink people. “Pink” not being a race, the jury continues to deliberate, settling on the lesser indictment of appearance-based insult.
A stronger line of attack is that it’s a class-based slur. But it’s not clear which class. Depending on which gammon-deprecator you talk to, it’s a sneer against Top-Gear-watching lower-middle-class provincial men in a uniform of “boot-cut jeans, loafers and an open-collared white polyester shirt”; or claret-faced members of the gin-and-jag belt to be found holding forth at the 19th hole in Henley or Tunbridge Wells. The gammon—as a stereotype for a particular sort of reactionary—crosses psephological categories as does reaction itself.
What’s peculiarly effective about the insult is that, though its denotative aspect refers to no more than skin colour, its connotations richly increase its aptness. Could there be a more Brexity foodstuff? Gammon, whether served with a glutinous ring of tinned pineapple or a slick of parsley sauce, is a token of all that is dowdy and post-war and pre-gastropub. It’s a metonym for the 1950-70s world to which gammons, caricaturally, wish to return us. And there’s the cleverness: “gammon” straddles the class divide between the blazer-wearing home counties golf Nazi and what a colleague calls the “estuarine prole.” Here is alike the remembered food of the minor public school, and the menu staple of the down-at-heel boozer in the unloved seaside town.
Its meaning is complexly enough determined, indeed, that it will support earnest Guardian articles in its defence by Owen Jones (“‘Gammon’ is punching up,” he writes, “in a way that, say, ‘chavs’ is punching down.”) Yet that is slightly beside the point. Like all effective insults, it feeds on the rage it provokes in its victims. It’s ugly and childish and that is what the gammon-callers like about it.
Such insults aren’t subject to ideological vetting. The best we can perhaps do, given its Little Englander connotations, is to check its passport. It has stamps going back to the Conquest, being as any fule kno a loan-word from the French gambon via the Anglo-Norman. And as an insult, notes the OED, it has history “in various parasynthetic adjectives referring to particularly reddish or florid complexions,” from 1604 (“The sallo-westfalian gamon-faced zaza cries stand out”) to 2004, when the Observer called Rupert Lowe “The gammon-cheeked Southampton chairman.”
So unusually, then, we see an insult that has been wandering in a Platonic half-light, waiting for a modern meaning to be applied to it. We are taking back control of our invective at least.