Friday, November 10, 2006

Words and Manners - the use and abuse of "the punters"

The way we use (and abuse) words says a lot about us and our attitudes. As an Australian case, take the evolution of the word punter.

The word originally simply meant a person who bet on the horses. So to punt, to take a gamble. And mug punter, a stupid gambler.

Track forward. Over the last few years (I am not sure exactly when the change began) the term punter has come to be used, especially by commentators, as a noun applying to the general population or major groups within that population such as those who vote. So a commentator may say something like "I am not sure how this Government decision will go down with the punters." This usage has spread to the point that I have heard some of our politicians use it.

I know Australians use slang and also like to gamble, but look at what the term means. Do they really mean, and I think that some of the commentators mean exactly this, that politics and policy is like horse racing, that ordinary Australians respond to politics and policy in the same way as they do when betting on the races? I say ordinary Australians because the commentators do not appear to regard themselves as belonging to the punter class.

I really think that the word is a put down, one that I resent. To me, it indicates a disrespect for our political system on one side, the Australian people on the other.

Mind you, I was interested in the views of my youngest on the matter when I asked her while driving her to school.

To begin with, while she had heard of the term punter, she did not actually know what the word meant. This surprised me, although as a household we rarely go the races or bet. When I explained the straight dictionary meaning of the word, she thought the usage was okay. After all, she explained, politicians always lie, so voting for them was necessarily a gamble!

I do not think that this is quite what the commentators have in mind when they use the term, but then Clare never listens to the commentators anyway. She prefers to make her own mind up on things.


Small Business USA said...

Interestingly, I have seen some similar attitudes in the US and Italy. Those who do not agree with the ideas of news channel are ignorant, stupid, corrupt, too lazy to do research...

I have a certain experience with Journalists. They do believe that they are the sole protectors of culture in our society.

Jim Belshaw said...

I like journalists. But there is another interesting example of change here.

In Australia, there has always been a difference between the regional and metro press. Regional reporters saw their role in reporting the community to the community, whereas the metros saw their role more in "news" terms. Some of the metro reporting styles if practised in a smaller community would tear the community about. And not in fact sell more newspapers.

This distinction in approach still exists but has broken down to some degree because most of the local papers have been acquired by the bigger companies.

In the metros there has always been a distinction between the yellow press with its focus on scandal and the underbelly of life and the more quality newspapers. In part because of the need to compete with TV, all Australian newspapers seem to have gone to a shock and awe approach.

The Murdoch Empire began in Australia and has only just relocated its domicile to the US. Many of its key people grew up in the Australian media world, so some of the US style is in fact Australian style transmuted through Rupert Murdoch's experience with the London popular press.

Another parallel change is of course the rise of TV. There have been and are some very good TV journalists. But as I see it, TV has also encouraged the rise of commentators, the talking heads. I have no problems with commentators, I am one myself after all. My problem arises when they start standing between me and the news, when they blur the lines between reporting and commentary, when their influence and style spreads into ordinary journalism.

I could say a lot more especially about the way journalists perceive themselves. I am not sure that I agree with you re culture, depending on the way that word is interpreted. But I do agree that they see themselves as sole protectors. And sometimes they are right.

Anonymous said...

Use and abuse of language is the domain of journalists. I've never heard of "insurgents" until the media started using the term. What about the "roadmap" to peace. I remember a few years back the "win win" situation. Let's not forget "coercive interrogation". But maybe these euphemisms are perpetrated by governments more so than journalists. I'll have to re-read George Orwell's 1984 to refresh my memory. BTW, he was also a journalist.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that you have the wrong criminal here, Lexcen, although you in fact suggest this. In 1984 Orwell showed how Government could use words to corrupt. Journalists are guilty of following along.Roadmap etc are examples.

Changing words can be used for both good and ill. This is an area I am fascinated with. I will give some examples later in my policy adviser series where I have consciously used language change to achieve what I believed to be good objectives. But the reverse holds as well.

Dave said...

A few additional thoughts on the word "punters" itself.
My first exposure (to the non-gambling variety of this word) would have been some time in the past 5-10 years. Nothing to do with political pundits - it's a term (now) used to refer to participants in the live music scene (not the performers, the other lot).
So it's quite common to see it used in album or concert reviews: "The punters will love this latest missive from Bloggsy" etc.

This may or may not be relevant, but one of Melbourne's best live music venues of the 1990s was "The Punter's Club" on Bruinswick St in Fitzroy. I couldn't tell you if this name pre-dated the musical incarnatuion of the venue though - maybe it used to be a T.A.B?

I personally don't mind the term, although just this week someone pulled me up after I used it in passing. (They too knew of it's musical context, I believe they were just resisting a new word for the sake of it)

Dave said...

I should also state my age, I'm 34.
This possibly puts me somewhere between you and your daughter's generations?

(As why I'm here - I was trying to find a definition of "punter" so I could more easily explain the term to my Canadian friend!)

Jim Belshaw said...

Dave, welcome. I am glad that you picked up the word on search.You are indeed between my any daughters ages if a bit closer to them.

The music case was very interesting because it shows just how widespread the broader use of the word punter has become. The date at which you became aware of it - 5-10 years ago - would fit with my own experience. I do not remember it being used in this way at the start of the nineties.