Peter Trudgill: Why FA chairman Greg Clarke’s use of the word coloured is wrong

John Barnes in action for England. The ex-footballer said the term 'coloured' was acceptable when he

John Barnes in action for England. The ex-footballer said the term 'coloured' was acceptable when he was younger. Picture: Library - Credit: EMPICS Sport

The phrase may have been OK 50 years ago, but not now, says a Norfolk linguistics expert

Former chairman of The Football Association Greg Clarke speaking to the Department for Digital, Cult

Former chairman of The Football Association Greg Clarke speaking to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee via video link this week. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

Football Association chairman Greg Clarke stood down after four years in charge earlier this week after coming under fire for a series of comments he made at a committee hearing in front of a group of MPs.

Among the comments that came under scrutiny was his choice of terminology when used to describe black footballers in this sentence about social media: “If I look at what happens to high-profile female footballers, to high-profile coloured footballers, and the abuse they take on social media... social media is a free-for-all.”

When Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee member Kevin Brennan MP pointed out the word he had used and asked Clarke, 63, if he would like to withdraw it, Clarke said: “If I said it I deeply apologise.

“I am a product of working overseas, where I was required to use the phrase people of colour. Sometimes I trip over my words.”

Language expert Peter Trudgill. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Language expert Peter Trudgill. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016


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That sentence, along with comments about racist and sexist stereotypes and also insinuating that being gay was a “life choice” resulted in an apology and then his resignation.

But why is the term “coloured” now deemed so wrong when for many people it has been a widely used term to describe non-white people for many years?

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Sanjay Bhandari, chairman of football anti-racism group Kick It Out, highlighted the generation gap when using the term “coloured”.

He said: “His use of outdated language to describe Black and Asian people as ‘coloured’ is from decades ago and should remain consigned to the dustbin of history.”

Danny Keen, chairman of Norfolk BHM (Black History Month). Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Danny Keen, chairman of Norfolk BHM (Black History Month). Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

The term is regarded now as an offensive racial slur which harks back to a time when casual racism was a part of everyday life.

“[It] was used to describe anybody who was not white, which may imply that to be white is ‘normal’ or default,” says the charity Show Racism the Red Card.

“If we consider it, every human has a skin colour, so technically we are all coloured.”

Norfolk writer and retired professor of linguistics, Peter Trudgill, 77, said the main issue is that we’re still using euphemisms to describe terms when it would be more up-to-date if we didn’t.

He said: “It was interesting to read the comments from [black footballer] John Barnes about when he first came to the UK and he was told that you were not supposed to call people ‘black’ and they should be referred to as ‘coloured’.

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“Before that we used the word ‘negro’ which would certainly shock a young person today. These were normal terms that most people aged over 70 would be familiar with and using them doesn’t imply they’re racist, it’s simply the words used at the time.

“The debate now is why should we have to use a term to describe somebody’s ethnic background and ‘coloured’ doesn’t fit in anymore.

“The term would have been used from the 1950s with no malice intended – John Barnes also said that he didn’t have a problem with being called ‘coloured’ when he was growing up – and there are parts of the world, such as in South Africa, where people call themselves ‘coloured’ and it isn’t considered an insult.”

Mr Trudgill, who lives in the centre of Norwich and is working on a book due for publication next year called The English of East Anglia, explained it wasn’t just in regards to race that there was confusion over which terms were apt.

He said: “There are other examples, such as the use of the term anti-Semitic to refer to anti-Jewish.

“In the 19th century the term ‘Jew’ was avoided and ‘Semite’ was used instead as a kind of euphemism, but the term anti-Semitic is also inaccurate as not all Semitic people are Jewish, yet it is still widely used. Again, it’s the problem of using a euphemism as a description.

“As for Greg Clarke, we can’t defend him but we can explain the words he used and why they are outdated. Someone in his position should have known better.”

Artist Danny Keen, 72, who has lived in Norfolk for 30 years and is chairman of Norfolk’s Black History Month said the meaning behind the phrase ‘coloured’ had altered over the last 60 years.

He said: “We live in a time when any of us can be accused of insensitivity or lack of political correctness. Terms for people change with the eras, cultures, fashions and generations. The word ‘coloured’ was chosen by the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] in the USA as a polite term for ‘black’. Since the 1960s and Black is Beautiful movement, those of us from the New World became proud of our African origins.

“The term ‘coloured’ is inaccurate unless ‘white’ is considered the norm. Although the description ‘black’ can cover every shade from off white to yellow, tan, red, brown, ebony and back, it usually denotes African ancestry. The term ‘coloured’ is old fashioned and dated but we all should get less sensitive and celebrate our differences.”

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