The Gammon Dilemma

One of the pleasures of writing a blog is having intelligent conversations with people who visit. It does me some good to have my opinions challenged in a way that’s largely consequence-free and where I’m in no more trouble than a slightly bruised ego when I get things wrong.

The downside of this is that it takes time thinking through some of these challenges, which is what happened when Rob asked me about the word “gammon”. Is it a racist insult? It’s an argument I’ve heard so many times before, but I’d always dismissed it without really thinking it through. This time I did think it through but, by the time I’d finished the following response, I realised that I still hadn’t written a blog post for today.

So, because I want to make up for a really bad week (the Benadryl has finally cleared my system and I’m now awake), I thought I’d cheat and combine the two. I hope Rob forgives me for elevating our conversation to a blog post of its own. It’s an interesting topic that doesn’t deserve burying in the comments. I’d also be interested in hearing thoughts from anybody reading this. I might not be able to respond at this kind of length but I’m interested to see how the word is perceived.

So, to the matter at hand. Is “gammon” a racist insult?

Well, first, I don’t think it is because I genuinely don’t believe it describes skin colour. Skin colour and pallor are different things. One gives you your natural colour. It doesn’t change except through exposure to UV. Pallor is different. It has to do with blood flow. And that’s what “gammon” refers to. It describes the characteristic flushing of the cheeks when somebody gets angry. Again: it’s not skin colour. Its blood flow. And if we’re going to make characterising physiological changes taboo, then I honestly believe we’ve reached a new level of crazy.

Laughing and pointing out that somebody is “red-faced” when embarrassed would then become a racial slur. We might as well ban complimenting people as “rosy-cheeked” after they’ve exercised and “white as a sheet” when they’re frightened. More specifically: “ashen” then become racist because it involves exactly the same kind of metaphor. Then do we ban “white as the driven snow”, “Snow White”, and then, obviously, “snowflake” which was always about fragility but could just as easily be made about race (though I think it’s used in a way that is also linked to the vitality-denying anaemia of vegans etc.)?

The moment we do this, we open it up to anything that references changes in pallor. We would no longer be able to say “you’re looking a bit blue today” which derives from the “bluish or leaden colour” that results from “reduced circulation or oxygenation of the blood” (OED). Then, of course, there’s “in the pink” which, if anything, is the closest to referencing skin colour. I’m sure there are more. Many more… “He’s a bit yellow”, “she’s green behind the ears”, and “your ears are red”.

Secondly and just as important, “gammon” is an insult that generally doesn’t cross a racial divide. It’s used by one white grouping to describe another grouping of white people. Not everybody who is white would be described as “gammon” and, if this was about race, then that wouldn’t be true. It would surely apply to all people of that racial colouring, in the way that “whitey” is a racial slur.

Which brings us to the comparable phrase “black pudding”. The phrase isn’t in itself racist. It’s a pudding that’s black. Apply it to a person of colour, however, and it’s different. Then you are crudely describing a person’s natural colour but, crucially, you are not describing their physiological response when angry. Yet the severity of the insult would even then depend on your colour. That’s important. The ‘n’ word has a hugely different resonance depending on the colour of the person saying it. I don’t believe a black mother calling her child a “black pudding” wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad as a white boss using it to describe a black employee. Context does matter.

In which case, a white person calling another white person “gammon” because their face has turned red is not, in my opinion, racist. The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems. It would be like commenting on their turning pale, grey, green, or in the case of jaundice, yellow. It leads to even more ridiculous situations. Would we be able to say they’d been beaten “black and blue” if they’d been in a fight? Pointing out that somebody has a “black eye” would be wrong. Even calling somebody “Rudolph” when their nose was a bit red after too much drink would be racist.

More broadly, no meat-based insults would be allowed. There’d be no more calling people a “proper sausage” when they made themselves look a fool. No more “What am I, chopped liver?” You couldn’t even give somebody a “roasting”, which again derives some of its meaning from a red face.

“Gammon” is about the physiological change produced by increased blood flow caused by a spike in adrenaline when a person gets angry. That doesn’t mean that it’s a polite word but there are many more that are much worse. It’s a taunt in the culture war, used in the very same way the Right use “remoaner” and “snowflake”. The only reason why “gammon” has become controversial is that some white people look to play the race card against their liberal opponents who they know are steeped in the very identity politics they despise so much. Beyond that, it has nothing to do with race. It’s just part of the silly games that are being played in order to find higher moral ground.

4 thoughts on “The Gammon Dilemma”

  1. Don’t mind at all David. Would just point out that the reason most white men over 50 have “gammon” faces isn’t due to them becoming angry, unless of course you believe a huge proportion the white male population spend their entire life angry. The white men I know who don’t have some burst capillaries by the time they get to that age are very few. I saw Kenny Dalglish talking about Liverpools title win, red faced, in fact looking back at photos of him when young he was gammon then. Alan Bennett must have spent his latter years furious, Ken Clarke, etc etc. If you don’t tan then the capillaries show up red, alcohol and sun damage also contribute to the ruddy look. My dad and his mates were huge boozers, would now be called functioning alcoholics, all red faced in their 30’s. My dad voted SDP, if he were alive and put forward an unpopular view today he would be “gammon”. It is a northern European phenomenon and one a lot of white men carry with them permanently, which again is why I contend it is racist. Could it be used against any other race?. Ah, you see you’ve got me arguing again. That’s it, I rest my case permanently now, I’ve done my bit for the old duffers.

    1. Always appreciate the counter-arguments, Rob, and that’s a particularly good one, neatly tying in with race and cleverly calling on my love for Liverpool FC.

      Yet I still don’t buy into it. First, this is the fallacy of the undistributed middle. All “gammon” are red-faced. My dad has a red face. Therefore you’re calling my dad “gammon”. Not only is it a syllogistic fallacy but I’m not sure it’s even true in the real world.

      Would anybody describe Dalglish as “gammon” simply because he’s enjoyed a few drinks? I doubt if that happens outside any context that doesn’t also imply a person has certain political views. I’m often red-faced when angry but I’d be surprised if I was ever called “gammon” because my politics are totally out of tune with the term. I’m happy to be called a “snowflake” or a “remainer”, though. (I might get twitchy about “libtard” since it brings in retardation but then I am a snowflake.)

      Inherent in the meaning of “gammon” (and so inherent that the insult doesn’t function without it) is the anger directed towards liberals, immigration, the European Union, and specifically Brexit. You wouldn’t even have to have northern European complexion to be accused of it. You would just need to be noticeably red-faced when angry about certain subjects. The term would make no sense in the contemporary meaning if used about a guy getting red-faced because his team has just lost.

      Second, men of a certain age with permanently red cheeks have always had a whole category of insults that also have nothing to do with their race. If it were otherwise, wouldn’t “boozer”, “alkie”, “wino” etc. also have racist overtones?

      Lastly, there’s still the white-on-white angle. How could I be engaged in racist behaviour if I, as a white guy, called another white guy “gammon” because he’s gone red in the face on the matter of Brexit? Race has nothing to do with it except, perhaps, it’s easier to spot changes of pallor in people with white skin.

      I appreciate you don’t want to take up your day arguing this but it was fun while it lasted. I also hope you appreciate that I try to see things as objectively as I can. Honestly, I have no pride in this. If there was anything here that hinted at racism, I’d accept it. I just can’t see it.

  2. Fascinating. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head David. Its a term that’s used by white people at other white people. If, as we contend it’s not racist, is it ageist? Its almost interchangeable now with ‘boomer’ which I dont like and dont use. As you say this is all meaningless culture wars nonsense when you get down to it.

    1. Thanks Max. Glad you’ve found in interesting.

      You’ve now got my mind working overtime. I hadn’t thought of the ageist argument and I’m immediately struck as to not knowing what to say.

      Part of it certainly becomes aesthetic. When writing poetry, writers often pick words that don’t simply convey what they mean but have some wider connotations, which make the poetry richer with layers of meaning. When Keats writes that “a drowsy numbness pains / My sense”, he picks “pains” because it creates a tension with “numbness”.

      In that sense, you might be right. “Gammon” feels like it carries a whiff of age about it. Old meat that’s been smoked a long time… It’s not exactly an image of smooth youthful skin. It’s the same with “snowflake”. I instinctively think of somebody young because “old” snowflakes aren’t a thing. They’re transitory.

      All that said, I don’t think it’s entirely impossible to think of either being used to describe somebody old or young. It’s just the words do seem to back up the sense that the culture war is a young/old debate.

      Yes, it is meaningless. All about the moral high ground. Both sides do it all the time when they face off with each other. They try to goad each other into throwing a punch or pushing them over and then go running to the cameras when it happens. It’s all play yard theatrics. On a much larger scale, it’s exactly what Trump wants to start in America. If he can goad protestors into causing trouble, he can then take the moral high ground as the “law and order president”.

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