Words of One Syllable Dept.

For some time now, the New York Times has been reporting, in almost daily stories, on the Canadian elections, culminating in Liberal Justin Trudeau succeeding Conservative Stephen Harper as Prime Minister. Some of these stories, by Ian Austen, refer to an episode in Trudeau’s past that some have interpreted as showing that Trudeau was not mature enough to serve as his nation’s political leader. A version from yesterday, in Austen’s “Justin Trudeau, Son of a Canadian Leader, Follows His Own Path to Power”, about Trudeau’s history:

Mr. Trudeau showed a penchant for unscripted remarks that could be refreshing or embarrassing. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canadian fighter jets would join the American-led campaign against the Islamic State militant group, Mr. Trudeau responded with a vulgar metaphor that many called juvenile.

Now, I’ve been following Canadian politics (at some distance, the way I follow American politics; it’s often a crazy, dirty business), and I recall Trudeau strongly opposing Harper’s fighter-jet proposal, but I don’t recall any “vulgar metaphor” or any outcry about one, and I can’t find any evidence of it on the net. Of course, the proudly fastidious Times wouldn’t actually cite offensive language, but Austen doesn’t even cite or link to any story in which the episode was reported in the clear, with context. So there’s no way for me to judge whether Trudeau “broke the unwritten law” (cue the Piranha Brothers) and merited opprobrium. Words of one syllable.

[Added a bit later: Ben Zimmer has now tracked down the actual quote, which is much less exciting than Austen made it out to be. More below to fold.]

[from Ben, a National Post story of 10/2/14, “Trudeau accuses Harper government of ‘trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are’ in Iraq”:

Later at the Canada 2020 conference, Jason Kenney, the federal employment minister [in the Conservative government], said he was “disturbed” by Mr. Trudeau’s wisecrack.

“To make a juvenile high-school joke about the use of the Royal Canadian Air Force in a global coalition to combat a genocidal terrorist organization says a great deal about Mr. Trudeau’s judgment,” he said.

Jason Kenney was speaking for the Conservatives and trying to belittle Trudeau in any way he could. Trudeau sniped at Harper, and Kenney (sniffily affecting to be distressed by Trudeau’s sniping) sniped back. This is what politicians do to one another. I am not impressed.]

Further back in Trudeau’s past, there was an episode of intemperate language, but in what amounted to a scrum [NOAD2: informal, chiefly Brit.   a disorderly crowd of people or things: there was quite a scrum of people at the bar]. From the National Post (Canada) on 12/15/11, in “Did Justin Trudeau’s four-letter obscenity take Commons’ behaviour to new low?”:

Justin Trudeau caused uproar in the House of Commons Wednesday after he called Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of shit” during a heated question time debate over the Kyoto Protocol.

The Liberal MP for Papineau immediately apologized, admitting he “lost his cool” after Kent questioned why NDP environment critic Megan Leslie had not attended last week’s climate change summit in South Africa.

But Mr. Trudeau was not alone as members of Parliament hurled insults and swore at each other in the final Question Period of the year.

I note in passing that male politicians are usually expected to swear in private; if they don’t, they risk being labeled as pansies (generally a bad thing in politics, because queers are “unmanly”) — but some (Mormons and evangelical Christians, in particular) are relieved of this expectation on religious grounds.

Notes on scrums. The ‘disorderly crowd’ sense is a semantic extension from the rugby usage. From Wikipedia:

A scrum (short for scrummage) is a method of restarting play in rugby that involves players packing closely together with their heads down and attempting to gain possession of the ball.

A classic rugby scrum:


All that close physical contact (with no protective gear) has led many to see homoerotic content in rugby, as in this comic song from the Republic of Telly:

But, wait! There is actual gay rugby, and even an International Gay Rubgy association. (I have several friends on gay rugby teams.) Mostly they play rugby just like everybody else (but with the big plus of being able to be open about their sexuality), but they are also given to playful moments, like barebum play. Here’s a team, just hanging out, totally bare except for socks and shoes (photo passed on to me by Chris Ambidge):


And another team, mostly wearing jockstraps, in a scrum:



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