A couple of weeks ago I was reminded both of my north-east roots and sociolinguistic theory in quite an unexpected way. While pottering around the house one Saturday afternoon, I heard a knock at the door. Standing there, tracksuited and trainered, was a young lad of about 18 with a large sports bag. He launched into an obviously well-rehearsed preamble: he was from Middlesbrough, had just been released from a local Young Offenders Institute, was trying to earn an honest living, could he show me his range of dusters. All this in a thick Teesside accent. Under normal circumstances I would never buy from anyone selling door-to-door, but there was something about his candour, the cheeky, endearing way he seemed to ‘confess’ to being from Middlesbrough and that familiar accent … well, it all tugged on my heartstrings just a bit. I grumbled ‘Alright, as you’re from Middlesbrough and so am I, go on then, show us yer wares.’ ‘Yer a smoggy!?’ he exclaimed incredulously as he unpacked some reasonably priced dish cloths. ‘Yer jokin’ aren’t yer?’ ‘I most certainly am!’ I replied, chest puffed out with regional pride. Cue a lively conversation which revealed that we were both from the same Middlesbrough suburb. We talked of his past (all behind him now), how the Boro were doing and what he was doing selling tat to Buckinghamshire housewives. I quietly began to wonder if he was the lad who nicked my dad’s powertools a few years back, bought some dusters (5 for £4.99, not bad) and wished him well. We parted as smoggy brethren reunited in a strange land.
That funny little word ‘smoggy’ (or ‘smoggie’) isn’t nearly as well known as those other north-east regional appellations: ‘Geordie’ (describing someone from Newcastle) and ‘Mackam’ (Sunderland). According to dialectologist Vic Wood, ‘smoggy’ is a word that originated on the football terraces, a term of abuse levelled at Middlesbrough supporters by fans of Sunderland. It’s a shortening of ‘smog monster’ (or ‘smog lander’) and refers to the pollution allegedly produced by Middlesbrough’s dominant petrochemical industry, making the town (to some) a less than desirable place to live. There was a lively response in Smogland in 2007 when the Channel 4 TV programme Location, Location, Location (pretty unfairly) declared the town the worst place to live in the UK.
‘Smoggy’ is a prime example of something sociolinguists call ‘linguistic reappropriation’ or ‘linguistic reclaiming’, when a word makes the journey from being a pejorative or taboo term to being seen as an acceptable, even desirable, slang label. In most cases the words that are reappropriated are connected with some facet of identity: gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or social class. They can still be considered offensive, if used inappropriately. Those turning the tables on the label are usually the targets of the abuse, the community who have been ‘othered’. By embracing precisely the word that is used against them, by being defiantly proud to be called a ‘smoggy’ or a ‘Mackam’ or whatever, the moniker is defused of its power to offend and actually serves to bind the community together. To me, it also reveals the deeper philosophical point that words can only really offend when the intention is to offend. This article, on smoggy propagandist Steve Form, proves my point and warmed the cockles of my smoggy heart. There is also a serious sociolinguistic point to consider, made by Middlesbrough linguist Carmen Llamas, that a name confers an identity. People from Middlesbrough were in dire need of an identity, often being confused with Geordies and suffering identity crises (Teessider? Yorkshireman? Clevelander?) under various local government boundary reshufflings. There’s no shame in Middlesbrough’s industrial past, so why bother denying it? By labelling us ‘smoggies’ Sunderland fans committed an own goal. Offended? Yer jokin’ aren’t yer? Ich bin ein Smoggy!
I didn’t agree that ‘words can only really offend when the intention is to offend’ but rather both society and law dictate that it is the recipient who determines offence independent of the other person’s intentions.