02 May 2012

Offal: a curious word choice

“She orders offal…”

Julie Bindel and Brooke Magnanti were having lunch. Ms Bindel is a Guardian journalist and a “radical feminist”; Dr Magnanti has just published a book called The Sex Myth, and was once the blogger known as Belle de Jour. An unlikely meeting you might think between an opponent of prostitution because it degrades women who are only now escaping from the oppression of the patriarchy, and a self-confessed one-time escort.

They’re not likely to have much — if anything — in common, and the report of the meeting seems to confirm this. It’s here, and well worth reading, and don’t forget to look at the comments.

I said “report” because the article isn’t really a book review, nor is it quite the usual interview that you read in the papers; and it certainly isn’t unbiased.

But it was the odd use of the word “offal” that first caught my attention. We all know that it refers to the innards of animals, and I certainly thought it had rather negative associations; not a neutral descriptor.

A quick check in several dictionaries confirms this. It’s cognate with the German Abfall which means waste; modern meanings include parts of an animal that are discarded, parts that are inedible, parts that are waste.

And there is a distinct similarity in pronunciation between “offal” and “awful”.

So why say “offal” when you could have said “calves’ liver” which was the dish chosen?

There’s another revealing statement just below the “offal” one. Ms Bindel says:

“I begin by asking her about the the mistakes that appear throughout her work…”

 I don’t know about you, but I remember being taught that when you critique someone’s work, you start by mentioning the things that were done well, before going into those that could be improved — or here, the things that you don’t agree with. What you don’t do is start with a confrontation. Surely, you want to relax your interviewee and to understand their point of view — even if you don’t agree with it. But they are as entitled to their view as much as you are, and as entitled to be heard. And only then can you rubbish it.

By using a word as loaded as “offal” Ms Bindel has shown that the rigidity of her radical feminist views blinds her to the opinions of others. Alas, this is an all too common problem.

You could almost say that using “offal” is a Freudian slip; but perhaps here it was deliberate.

James Joyce, in Ulysses, wrote:

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.”

Now, Joyce was a master wordsmith. He didn’t use “offal” here because he knew that “offal” only refers to animals; it doesn’t include birds. Joyce always knew exactly the right word to use to express himself.   

[PS: Ms Bindel was reading a pre-publication version of the book; there are changes in the final version.]

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