gender English language and words in the news language change and slang

Finding the riot words

The recent riots in England led to some debate over language, most notably over what to call the people rioting. The BBC was criticised for continuing to use the word protesters for a few days after the term had become inappropriate. The broadcaster later admitted it had made a mistake; Fran Unsworth, BBC News head of newsgathering, added:

We try not to be too prescriptive, but yes we have said actually that they’re not protesters they’re clearly rioters and looters. They are more descriptive terms and we should try and be as accurately descriptive as we can be.

Though the BBC went out of its way to avoid terms that could be considered judgemental, other media outlets and commentators were less cautious. All sorts of words were used to refer to the rioters – looters, thieves, criminals, hooligans, thugs, yobs, idiots, cretins, scum, terrorists, feral underclass. A few of these are, to use Unsworth’s phrase, accurately descriptive; others are loaded with prejudice or carry a nasty subtext.

Mark Liberman at Language Log used a memorable metaphor in a post about flash mobs: that word meanings “pick up associations like barnacles”. People share many of these associations but they also bring their own to the mix. This idiosyncrasy, combined with people’s different value systems, means the perceived accuracy and acceptability of a term can vary greatly from person to person.

The riots also brought mainstream media attention to urban slang, such as bally for balaclava, feds for police (a clear borrowing from American English), and bare for lots of or very, as in “bare feds” or “bare dangerous”. Note that this sense of bare isn’t new – it has multiple entries in the Urban Dictionary dating from 2003, and is presumably older than that.

Another political aspect of the language used in reference to the riots concerns geography. The BBC initially called the riots “UK riots”, but after receiving complaints from  residents of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, it switched to “England riots”.

The Telegraph, in its report of this change, calls the BBC representative a spokesman. We are left in little or no doubt about his gender. I wonder if it had been a woman, would the newspaper have referred to her as a spokeswoman or as a spokesperson? Why not use spokesperson regardless, unless the gender is somehow relevant to the report?

You can find out more about the relationship between gender and language on this page.


About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Stan:
    The complaints to the BBC were entirely fair, if a bit hypercritical. Journalists(myself included) for a variety of reasons try to telegraph an image of an event which will resonate in the mind of the reader or listener. As it was explained, the genesis of “protesters” came from the initial coverage of a peaceful protest gone wrong. Should the journalists have emended their descriptors? Absolutely. Are journalists perfect? Absolutely not. Obviously, this is somewhat tangential to the thrust of your posting.

  • I’d go along with that assessment, Marc. It’s easy to see how the original description stuck for a little longer than necessary; but after several days of destructive rioting, people were in no mood to see those responsible described in terms that had rapidly come to seem euphemistic.

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