13 November 2010


I used to enjoy doing the cryptic crossword in The Times when I was younger. These days, I’ve moved via The Independent to The Guardian, and don’t try the cryptic crosswords now.
I found that I had to get ‘into the head’ of the crossword compiler to be able to understand the code that the clues were written in. Really good solvers can tell which of a panel of compliers has set todays crossword. I found that a good classical education was necessary to understand the clues, perhaps what you get at an English public school. There are rules and conventions for a well-constructed crossword. One old saw is ‘I must say what I mean, yet not mean what I say’. Or, perhaps it’s the other way round. There is a statement within which there are coded clues to a word. If the punning is more outrageous than usual, the clue often ends with an exclamation mark (!), as a sort of warning to the potential solver.  While you might think that setting and solving crosswords is an innocuous past-time, there was a distinct fear in June 1944 that because The Daily Telegraph crosswords contained many of the code words used in the D-Day invasions, the crossword was being used for sending coded messages. Omaha, Utah, Overlord and others appeared as solutions. It was only a coincidence — but officers from MI5 did go to interview the setter.
Printing conventions try to replicate the emotions and emphases of speech, and from an early stage printers introduced marks to indicate how a phrase or sentence was to be interpreted and expressed. If it was a question, there would be a question mark (?); if there was to be emphasis, there would be an exclamation mark (!); and semi-colons, a relatively late arrival, indicated a slight pause, longer than a comma, but not as long as a colon. They are indications of how a passage should be read out loud, for when printing first came, reading aloud was normal; silent reading came later. Before the introduction of paragraphs to indicate a change in the train of thought, the pilcrow (¶) was used in the uninterrupted text, and the indentation of the first line of the new paragraph, as here, is no more than another convention.
 Twitter (twitter.com) is a newcomer to social networking media, though has an extensive following. Messages cannot be more than 140 characters, a limit set by the expected use of short message mobile phone texts as the method of choice for sending posts. From what I’ve seen, many of the messages are more like craic, banter in a pub. The Twitter character limit means that messages must be short and snappy, and it’s common enough to add ? and ! to them, often several at a time, such as !?!?, to indicate questioning surprise.
One of these tweets brought its author before the courts in England. Paul Chambers, tweeting as @pauljchambers, was trying to get a plane from the airport at Doncaster to Belfast, but the airport was closed because of snow. No doubt, it was ‘the wrong kind of snow’, the sort that brings all public transport in the UK to a complete standstill. He tweeted:
"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"
Now, the tweet seems to say that Paul is going to blow up the airport (though there is no mention of a bomb). The tweet was not directed at anyone in particular, though all of his followers on Twitter would see it, and being on the public tweet line, could be found by anyone who chose to search. On Twitter, adding an @ before someone’s twitter name indicates that the message is primarily for them. Not here, there was no specific recipient, it was a shout in the Twittersphere.
Look more closely. There is an exclamation after ‘crap’ at the start, serving to emphasise the swear. Paul is annoyed about something, and the swear should alert the reader that what follows should explain it; the reader will have already seen that more text follows ‘Crap!’ and will be seeking this explanation.
Then the factual ‘Robin Hood airport is closed’. This sentence has a full stop at the end of it. There is no direct connection between this sentence and the next, no ‘and’ or ‘or else’ or similar, although the word ‘airport’ is in the second. They are two separate sentences. There has been at least one case before the English Courts where the presence of an ‘and’ (or maybe it was an ‘and/or’) determined the outcome. Common law can be very particular about words. Here, Paul’s annoyance announced in the initial ‘Crap!’ is explained.
Then, there is the curious phrase ‘You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together’. Curious, firstly, because of the time allowed for somebody or something (not exactly specified) to get their ‘shit’ together. How long might a ‘week and a bit’ be? And secondly, this is not addressed to any particular person, though the ‘you’ could refer back to Robin Hood Airport: it need not, and the connection is made in the mind of the reader. It’s an expression of a hope or expectation that something would be done, the ‘something’ being the unwritten ‘get rid of the snow and get the planes flying again’. ‘Shit’ here does not literally mean excrement, but is a common modernism for ‘act’. 'Shit' might also refer to illegal drugs; unlikely, but not impossible. Analytical deconstruction can be taken a bit far.
And finally, ‘otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!’ Note that there are two exclamation marks at the end of this phrase; not a single exclamation, but two marks, an indication that what the words say are not to be taken literally; they do not mean what they say. This is annoyance and frustration being vented in a rather puerile way as a joke.  And it is ’the airport’ and not, say, ‘your airport’ which if intended for a specific recipient it would be. Yet I would suspect that this phrase has been taken as the basis of the ‘menace’ or threat, referring back to Robin Hood Airport as the presumptive recipient.
So, would you consider that the last sentence should be considered on its own, or as part of the totality of the tweet? By itself, and without any exclamation marks, and sent to a named person or authority, it could be seen as so being. Well, think of ’I’ll kill him’. Is this a threat, a menace? Hardly, if it follows ‘If Paul’s late for tea’.  Paul is not really, literally going to get killed even if he is late for tea, though he might get a flea in his ear (and, of course, not a literal flea). There are many similar examples, where the threat or menace is imaginary, a hyperbole.
The tweet followed a series of private tweets or ‘direct messages’ — tweets which only the recipient can read — in which he apparently expressed his frustration; I have not seen them. The context of these tweets might further illuminate the intended nature of the ‘offending tweet’. 
This tweet has been dissected in the English Courts, and found guilty of ‘menace’ or of being ‘menacing’. Or rather, Paul has been brought before the Court as the author, and convicted of sending a ‘menace’. (The prosecution was brought under a section of the law originally designed to protect the sensibilities of telephone exchange operators — at the time of the original Act, they would all have been female. The tweet was never felt by any of those investigating to be in any way a credible terrorist threat.)
Now, ‘menace’ may well have a strict legal definition, and what it means before the Courts may well not be the meaning that the man in the street takes from it: and I am not legally trained.  Lower courts are bound by precedent, that requirement to apply what has been decided before by a higher authority in circumstances which may be dissimilar, that is their hands are tied (but of course, they are neither bound nor tied in any literal way). Would the reasonable man in the street think this was a real (terrorist) threat, a literal ‘menace’? 
The initial imprecation, and a couple of final exclamation marks change the intention entirely; Paul does not mean what he says.

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