Cracked Skulls and Paradigms image

Cracked Skulls and Paradigms

The unfolding story of the “Skull Cracker” has caused some amusement around my family dinner table.

My kids have been mystified as to how a dangerous criminal, sentenced to multiple life terms, could be allowed to abscond – and in this they shared the incredulity of the MP who described as a ‘berk’ whoever it was that was responsible for the fiasco. My kids have been laughing a lot about skull crackers and berks. It is terminology that sounds like something from a low-budget cops and robbers TV show from the 1960’s:

“’ere, Sarge – ‘erd the news?”
“Wot news would that be then constable?”
“’bout the skull cracker boss.”
“The skull cracker? Wot, that dastardly felon wot we got banged up for banging in all those ‘eds.”
“That’s the one skipper.”
“Well wot about ‘im then sunshine?”
“They’ve only bloomin gone and let ‘im get out of chokey!”
“You wot?! Wot, some berk has let the skull cracker escape? I could crack ‘is ‘ed! Wot flammin’ berk was it?”
“I dunno sarge, but sounds like a case for Gripper of the Yard.”

I don’t think I had heard the term ‘berk’ since about 1981, and my kids had no idea what it meant. My wife explained (being the culturally attuned woman that she is), “It’s like saying, ‘You muppet!’” and, indeed, I thought it was a similarly random and inoffensive term. But on a whim I googled the etymology of ‘berk’ and was somewhat surprised by what I found.

This got me thinking about the way we use language, and what language represents. I thought ‘berk’ was a meaningless and quaint term, when it is actually derived from rhyming slang for what is generally regarded as the most offensive four-letter word in the English language.

Now you’re back from googling, let me go on to make my point…

My standard introductory example when teaching on Christian ethics is the marketing campaign by French Connection a decade or so ago in which the acronym ‘fcuk’ featured prominently – and provocatively. There was no doubt as to what this acronym represented, or how it was meant to be heard/pronounced, and this was reinforced by advertising slogans and t-shirt graphics with charming messages such as, ‘fcuk fashion’ and ‘too busy to fcuk’.  Yes, technically ‘fcuk’ was an abbreviation for ‘French Connection United Kingdom’, but no-one could be so naïve as to think that the branding was seeking to clarify the territorial origins of the company. This campaign was credited with reviving the financial fortunes of French Connection, though it has now fallen out of favour and the use of fcuk is much more low key.

When French Connection launched the fcuk campaign there was the predictable appalled response from sections of the media, and from many Christians – a response which was part of the campaign strategy. It also struck closer to home. My oldest daughter was about five at the time and I remember her sense of bemusement and concern when we went into our local shopping mall to be confronted by a twenty-foot tall obscenity on the French Connection store front. This upset me, because it didn’t seem fair that my young daughter should be unable to avoid something so adult.

While French Connection have toned down their marketing, the fcuk brand still exists and I have been surprised at the casual way in which some of my Christian friends are happy to sport it. This is not because I am particularly offended by the f-word, or even think there is never an appropriate context in which to use it, but because I am thinking about other people’s five-year olds, and about the general ‘tone’ of what and how we communicate. On one occasion I was in the car with another church leader who was wearing a pair of fcuk branded glasses. I observed to him that I found it somewhat odd that whenever I turned to talk to him the first thing I saw was the f-word on the side of his face. He seemed as bemused by this being a problem for me as my kids were by the term berk.

Now that you know what berk means, you will probably be less likely to use it – not that you would anyway, as you live in the 21st century. But there is the possibility that berk might come back into omnipresent circulation, in which case the very familiarity of the term might ‘free’ you to use it, even knowing what it represents. We all know what ‘fcuk’ means but if we have any sensitivity towards others we wouldn’t allow the familiarity of the brand, or the ubiquity of the f-word, to make us comfortable about wearing it as a logo on our glasses, jeans or t-shirts. There is an important distinction between choosing not to take offence, and intentionally doing what is offensive.

I think my fcuk-wearing pastor friend had become the proverbial frog in the kettle. He had become so accustomed to the term, and he so liked the glasses, that he couldn’t even see that something odd was going on. My five-year old could have told him it was odd, but a middle-aged pastor with a sharp intellect and a couple of degrees was blind to it.

Of course, this isn’t just about language. Our paradigms can get so shifted by shifts in the culture that we are simply unable to see what would once have been obvious. What is obscene is declared sanctified. What is madness is pronounced sane. And we begin to prefer things that way.

Not to see this is to be skull-cracked.

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