Etymology (n): the facts relating to the origin of a particular word or the historical development of its form and meaning; the origin of a particular word.
– Oxford English Dictionary
There’s an excellent website called ‘Politwoops’ that captures and retweets any tweets that politicians delete. This deleted message appeared in my timeline the other day:
There are many reasons this particular tweet deserves attention and I’ll come to some of them later. But first it reminded me of the word ‘yoon’ itself. It’s not in the dictionary, not even in the OED’s update of new words.
If you don’t take an obsessive interest in Scottish politics or haven’t heard the term before, it’s easy to define. It means ‘unionist’ and if nothing else is a phonetic play on the first two letters of that word. ‘Unionist’ has a long history in Scotland that others are better able to explain than me. The short version of its origin is that it refers to the union of Scotland with England. For many years unionist was synonymous with the political party known, in Scotland at least, as ‘Conservative and Unionist.’ Some of the dafter-than-a-brush nationalists that inhabit cyberspace seem to equate unionism with the so-called ‘loyalism’ of Northern Ireland. And more recently, it has become synonymous with anyone who wants to maintain that Scottish-English union and voted ‘No’ in the 2014 separation referendum.
I’ve not seen confirmation of how the word ‘yoon’ came about (that’s where a good dictionary comes into its own) but it’s widely assumed to be an invention of SNP MP Pete Wishart, who seems to have a penchant for this sort of wordplay. He is also credited, if that’s the right word, with ‘Nawbag,’ meaning someone who voted No in the 2014 referendum. The etymology of Nawbag is a little more colourful and since I’ve touched on it before (towards the bottom of that long article) I won’t repeat it here.
I can’t quite pin it down but yoon has a slightly unpleasant feel. It sounds a bit like ‘goon’ or ‘loon’ or perhaps ‘doon’ – as in ‘There you go again, talking Scotland doon.’ More unpleasantly of course there’s ‘coon.’ And I’ve seen someone claim it’s a deliberate conflation of ‘unionist’ and ‘lunatic.’ Don’t laugh at these associations. Poets make a career out of words that sound similar and Wishart, if not a poet, has been a musician and is articulate enough to write a long-running blog and know what he’s doing.
Put bluntly yoon is an insult and is meant to be.
You can tell it is for two reasons.
First, pragmatically, go on to social media and see how it’s used. Here are some examples from a 2-3 minute trawl of Twitter.
- Familiar with failure? Obviously you will be quite soon, yoon!
- Jim nochtee (sic) [and] his blatant yoon observations
- Yoons gonna yoon. Wallopers gonna wallop
- I was arguing with a mad yoon recently …
- Dirty tricks as per f@ckin usual from these Yoon tossers!
- This yoon trying to sound like the dumbest person in Scotland. Fucking moron or what?
Second, also on social media, see how some unionists take the word on board and call themselves yoons. This is the bravado and retaliation of Spurs fans who call themselves ‘yids’ or African Americans ‘niggas.’ I don’t pretend all three words in their original meanings are equally offensive but in principle it’s the same sort of thing. People do it to take ownership of the language, to diminish its power, and as a defence mechanism. But it doesn’t make the original insult right.
To nationalists who might claim the word is no more than light-hearted banter or an amusing play on words, I ask where is the humour in the examples I give, or indeed anywhere else? And the responses (my words although I’ve seen the sentiments online) ‘Can you not take a joke, pal?’ or ‘If you don’t like the heat get out of the kitchen’ just won’t do. Turn the tables. It’s a useful exercise. What abuse do you get online? How about ‘Natsis’? Amusing, light-hearted? I think you get my drift.
Someone pointed out to me that the trivialisation of what is meant to be an insult is actually no more than the tactic of the playground bully repeated, often anonymously (bullies are cowards too), in cyberspace. I think there’s a lot of truth in that and like schoolboy bullies they often travel in packs.
The words insult and trivialisation take me neatly back to the deleted tweet I started with.
I don’t know why Wishart wrote it in the first place. But note how it fits what I say – the insult trivialised with a rather pathetic attempt at humour – ‘Hug a yoon.’ Interesting, too, to ponder the link he must have been aware of to David Cameron’s purported ‘hug a hoodie.’
Equally interesting is why he deleted it. Was it because he’s a stickler for grammar and noticed he’d missed out a ‘know’ between ‘don’t’ and ‘why’? Did he realise that actually he does know why ‘they don’t like that label’ (because he devised it as an insult)? Did an awful realisation dawn on him that the phrase ‘fellow travellers’ had a historical resonance he hadn’t intended? Or was it because he had a sudden dim memory of his leader’s ‘patiently and respectfully’ speech at the SNP’s last conference? That, of course, was not the first time she’s used similar words but I can’t say I ever notice any difference in how Wishart and a minority of other SNP politicians comport, and demean, themselves.
As a small exercise in etymology, I leave you to decide what Pete Wishart’s use of the word ‘yoon’ tells you about the man. I do know one thing. Whatever his ‘incredible Scottish journey’ is I’m not going on it.