Completing my current series of posts under the general header “why oh why can’t people use language in the way I want them to”, this morning we look at the controversial use of the word controversy on radio. An administrative cock up at the Department of Transport over who and when second provisional drivers can drive accompanied / unaccompanied / whatever becomes a ‘controversial decision’. A public utterance by a Nobel prize winner that black people are not as intelligent as ‘we’ might first have thought is ‘controversial’. A German ambassador says some things that Joe Duffy’s mates disagree with become ‘controversial remarks’.

For a controversy to exist there has to be a public debate where positions are known and taken on a reasonably clearly defined issue. In many of these examples and many more, there are no defined issues (what, per chance, was being debated when the German ambassador criticised Irish people for being boorish and greedy?) and certainly no contrary positions. Radio producers, editors and presenters use controversy to make the item more current and pressing. Was there no use of the word controversy in the following phrase, would it seem as interesting:

The Taoiseach’s controversial remarks on male suicide in Ireland…

you might as well say that his remarks were red or ill-judged. The word controversy is not an adjective. It is as if controversy makes something a debate rather than it being the result of a debate. We don’t know if Bertie’s foot in mouth over male suicide is controversial or not, we don’t have a position, we just don’t know. Let’s talk about it, make up some minds and then consider its controversial content. Issue after issue after issue is put before in this way. In the space of about 6 minutes on Newstalk this morning there were two ‘controversial issues’ examined. And so controversy is used to refer to access to abortion and if Wayne Rooney should play in the next game for England; for Holocaust denial and if Lewis Hamilton is really the F1 world champion.

Provisional license holders: you are just that, provisional, kinda like the IRA. Smug full license holders: chill out and readjust the sights of your invective.

Sad passing of Dr Anthony Clare this morning in Paris. He was one of those public intellectuals that remained above ahem, controversy.


5 thoughts on “Controversial

  1. Good post 73 – reminds me of something i heard a few years back about sports commentators using overly dramatic language – a team of overly paid sport playing prima donnas losing a match is not a calamity a disaster a catastrophe or a tragedy

  2. Colin: when I worked at UCD correcting exams and student projects, it was all exaggeration. Now some of them work in mass media, it is not so funny.

    Conortje: thanks. Right back at you for Tuesday’s post.

  3. Ohhhhh I totally agree. Although my English is patently not perfect, all this media melodrama irritates the crap out of me. Slow news days can obviously be elevated a notch or two by the word ‘controversial’. Grrrr. Great post.

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