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Just a bunch of politicians

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© GETTYBritain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, may be regretting his choice of words in a political debate earlier this week. Mr Cameron’s opposite number, Jeremy Corbyn, had spent the previous day at a refugee camp in northern France, and in a House of Commons debate the PM attacked Corbyn for “meeting with a bunch of migrants in Calais”. His comments sparked strong reactions. Many felt that the word bunch was inherently disparaging, and described its use in this context as “inflammatory”, “divisive”, and “offensive”. But others came to Cameron’s defence, pointing out that bunch was simply an informal word for a group of individuals and – as one of his own ministers said – the PM was just using the “language of ordinary people”.

So were Cameron’s critics right to interpret the phrase “a bunch of migrants” as derogatory – or were they imagining an insult where none was intended? The best way to resolve questions like this is to look at what the language data tells us, and see how people generally use the word bunch when they communicate with one another.

Semantically, bunch is more or less synonymous with group or collection. But when speakers select one word from a set of near-synonyms, the choice is usually “motivated” – we do it in order to convey our own feelings and attitudes. Think, for example, of the difference between believe and swallow. If someone says “I explained why I hadn’t finished my homework, and the teacher believed me”, we can’t draw any conclusions about the speaker’s attitude, because believe is a neutral word. But if you said, “I made an excuse, and the teacher swallowed it”, you still mean that the teacher believed it, but with the implication that the teacher is gullible and easily deceived. And the difference between “promoting” an idea and “peddling” one illustrates the same contrast between a neutral and a negative evaluation. Is there something similar going on with bunch?

Well, yes and no. Corpus data reveals three broad categories, and in two of these, bunch is neutral and uncontroversial. First, bunch is frequently used as a collective noun with words like flowers, grapes, keys, or bananas. No problem there. In its two other uses, bunch refers to groups of people, and that’s the focus of our attention here. It is one of those words which is always modified, either by an adjective or by a prepositional phrase with of – or both. When bunch is used without a following of, we can find both neutral and negative examples:

The guys there seem like a really cool bunch (well, they dig Linux don’t they?).
I do think it’s a silly argument to have, but gamers are a strange bunch sometimes.
Sailors are a very superstitious bunch and if they can blame misfortune on someone or something they will.

Adjectives which often collocate with bunch include motley, odd, useless, and incompetent – but words like friendly and nice are even more frequent:

They seemed like a friendly bunch, with little interest in internal politics.
This is a very talented bunch playing mostly contemporary material with the odd traditional bluegrass tune.
The staff are mostly seasonal, and usually a nice bunch, if a tad rowdy.

But when bunch is followed by of (and this happens in around two-thirds of all uses), a third pattern emerges. Yes, there are plenty of instances of a bunch of guys/kids/people and similarly neutral words. But there is also strong evidence of a clearly disparaging sense of bunch, where the nouns following of frequently include words like thugs, idiots, hippies, misfits, losers, hypocrites, crooks, amateurs, tossers, cowboys (and other words that are not even printable).

Now, David Cameron is not a corpus linguist, so you could argue that he had no way of knowing his choice of words might cause offence. But in that case, why did so many of his critics immediately draw the conclusion that his remarks were derogatory? Michael Hoey’s notion of “Lexical Priming” may help to explain what’s going on here. As we have discussed before in the blog, the words we use are “primed” through the contexts in which we have encountered them in the past. If we repeatedly see a word used in a negative context, that will colour our interpretation of it when we see it again – and this would account for the immediate reaction of Mr Cameron’s critics. They instinctively felt that his choice of bunch reflected (perhaps unconsciously) an uncomplimentary attitude, and the linguistic data seems to support this.

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Michael Rundell

7 Comments

  • It’s interesting how often words for groups of people have (or can have) negative connotations. In addition to ‘bunch’, crew, brigade, shower, even ‘lot’ spring to mind. I’m sure there are others. Maybe when we lump people together it is often in order to disparage them?

  • The reference by David Cameron to “a bunch of migrants” must be looked at in the context of the prevailing meaning of the phrase in the present social atmosphere. Migrants are seen or referred to by some as invading armies: people who come here to take advantage of all the good things this country is giving away freely without any questions asked. So when the Oxford-educated politician who has been the Prime Minister of this country for the past 6 years says “a bunch of migrants” he knows exactly what he is talking about. The phrase used is doubly negative in this context.

  • Michael: Thank you; this is a really interesting post, and illustrates how ‘lexis’ and grammar patterns are inseparable. Sense 1 of ‘bunch’ in MEDO subsumes the patterns or collocations ‘a|an adjective bunch’ and ‘a|an bunch of noun’. Yet as you say, you find negative and neutral uses of the first pattern, as well as positive: ‘a good/great/interesting bunch’ etc. The second pattern is more likely to be disparaging – ‘a bunch of control freaks’ etc. It is prosody, it is lexical priming, but what pins the distinction down is the pattern-meaning correspondence. In many cases the pattern helps to shape the meaning – if you hear about ‘a bunch of experts’, the very pattern leads you to expect that these experts are not held in great esteem by the speaker. There must be so many such subtle correspondences between lexical meaning and ‘grammar’ of which we are unaware until someone like David Cameron uses the phrase ‘a bunch of migrants’. Then we totally get it.

    Afterthought: what are the dominant meanings when the two patterns merge: ‘a|an adjective bunch of nouns’?

  • Hello, interesting post and debate, but in this case – and I have not seen or heard a clip of the comments in question – surely tone of voice and body language would also inform us hugely as to what the PM’s attitude really was.
    Does seem to be an unwise choice of words though. If not disparaging, not exactly flattering ether.

    Isn’t priming in this case simply a question of frequent use and therefore, in English at least, ‘right’ meaning/usage?

  • Paddy: I think that as always context is all; not only tone of voice and body language, as you rightly point out, but also the linguistic context. The Prime Minister included the term ‘bunch of migrants’ in a list of three which also included Argentinians (he accused the Labour leader of ‘giving them the Falklands’) and trade unions (he ‘gave them flying pickets’) and then contrasted this with a group (‘the British people and hardworking taxpayers’) who Corbyn ‘never stands up for’. I think his intent to disparage both the three groups of people and his opponent was pretty plain.

  • Compare ‘bunch of migrants’ with ‘group of migrants’. One neutral, one distinctly disparaging. Yes ‘bunch’ has unequivocally negative overtones in this distribution. Would Cameron ever refer to himself and colleagues as a ‘bunch of politicians/ministers’? Suspect not. He slipped up, simple as, unwittingly revealing his real feelings with an instinctive lexical choice. The Oxbridge PR man caught off guard. He has done it before. He will undoubtedly do it again.

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