Britain’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.Email this Post