There’s been a hell of a lot of discussion this week about Ricky Gervais and his use of the word “mong” on Twitter (mong being a shortened version of “mongoloid”, an archaic term for Down’s Syndrome).
I wont explain the whole thing, James Ward does it all here.
Gervais’s defence of his use of the word is that meanings change. Of course, this is true. But this is something that happens over time. Gervais can’t really force it. You can’t simply decide, by yourself, that a word that many people find offensive is not offensive and then get defensive when people point out you’ve been offensive. Which is what Gervais has done, variously blaming people who are jealous of his success (what, in the old days, we used to call “playa haters”) and the “humourless PC brigade” (I’ve always maintained that invoking the PC brigade is on a level with saying “I’m entitled to an opinion” as a tacit admission that one has lost the argument).
A problem with Gervais’s use of the word is he clearly does believe it is transgressive, and therefore funny. So his defence — that the usage doesn’t have transgressive aspects, as the meaning has changed, doesn’t add up.
And worst of all, it’s just not funny. Gervais has confused offensive (rarely in itself funny) with transgressive (a vital element of pretty much all humour).
None of this is to say that Gervais cannot use whatever the hell words he likes.
Here, as a lesson in transgressive, is Joan Rivers making Anne Frank jokes (fast forward to three minutes):