Among the ‘critics’ of Gaelic I have observed over the last few years, there appears to be a large number of avid watchers of old episodes of the children’s cartoon,‘Dangermouse’.
Most oddly, among the latter, they appear to be addicted to the Gaelic version, renamed – I think! – ‘Donnie Murdo’. They are able to sing its theme tune and quote what they believe to be large swatches of its dialogue, albeit in fluent and mocking ‘Teuchterese’:
‘Itch-heederumhoderum – helicopter – eeenimeeniminimo- ochayethenoo…’
For decades, I have learned to grin through gritted teeth at such tired and offensive clichés. However, their use of the word ‘helicopter’ always creases me up. A large number of monoglots I have met during my decades on this planet seem to suffer from a fixation on this particular word or the programme in which they appear to hear it. One can only imagine that it must be part of either an ‘Edinburgh Evening News’ columnist or a stand-up comic’s favourite routine, the repetition of ‘itch-heeeheederumhoderum – helicopter – eeenimeeniminimo- ochayethenoo’ one of the few moments in their act apparently guaranteed to have them giggling in Glasgow, screeching in Stirling, or bringing the house down in Huntly. (Clearly it doesn’t take much to crack them up in the nation’s capital, but that’s another story, one that I’ll keep to the end of this article.)
When I finally manage to put a halt to their hysterics, I always try and question them about their obsession with the word, ‘helicopter’. They giggle, snort, spill their coffee cups on their laps a few times before they give any kind of explanation.
‘It’s so funny to hear an English word among all these strange sounds. I mean, you hear ‘itch-heederumhoderum-ochayethenoo’ – and thenyou hear ‘helicopter’. I mean,-hee! hee! hee! – it’s hilarious! Ridiculous! Amusing! Hysterical! …’
And then they’re bending double once again, dampening and staining the crotches of their trousers/ jeans/ skirt with another large splash from their coffee cups …
It is hard for me to be sure if there are regular references to the word ‘helicopter’ in ‘Dangermouse’. It is not a TV programme I have watched too often, preferring to leave it to those monoglots who clearly find it a great intellectual challenge, particularly when it is broadcast in Gaelic. (I must confess I do have a faint recollection of a mouse swinging past on a rope, though that might just be a vision from some Friday night misspent in my teens as I seem to recall a bald hedgehog and a candy-striped elephant from that particular period too. Perhaps someone could enlighten me.) However, I do take issue with their claim it is an English word. A quick flick through my dictionary reveals that it is not.
It is, in fact, Greek. The prefix ‘heli’ is based on that language’s word for ‘screw’. (Sorry! That’s a thousand cups of coffee spilled across the entire stretch of Scotland once again. Drycleaners are poised to make a fortune.) The remainder is based on that same tongue’s term for ‘wings’. In this way, it’s the same as thousands of words imported into English from other tongues. No doubt it even passes the lips of such fine upstanding characters as ‘Dzielna Musen’ (Polish), ‘Dundermusen’ (Swedish), and ‘Dare Dare Motus’ (French). Who knows? Perhaps they come out with lines that sound vaguely like ‘Itch-heederum-hoderum – helicopter’ too?
Lately, I have encountered another individual who appears to be yet another keen viewer of ‘Dangermouse’. Coming out with similar lines of dialogue to the ones that are reputedly often heard in the programme is John Gibson, the columnist for the ‘Edinburgh Evening News’. On the 2nd of October,he begins what passes in this particular newspaper for a debate about Gaelic spending with what are apparently both the language and a certain cartoon character’s favourite phrases, ‘itch-heederum-hodorum’ and ‘itch- ochaythenoo.’. Unsurprisingly, the ‘argument’ that he puts forward is as tired as his expression, attacking the cost of translating documents into Gaelic, hitting us all (Ian Durie style) with his shinty stick. It is best summed up by the headline that was given to his column that day – ‘Going To The Dogs’. Och-aye, your writing most certainly is, John.
Yet what is even more surprising is the defence of John Gibson’s column by the Deputy Editor, Euan McGrory. Rather than accept that the writer’s piece is not a masterpiece in terms of either its tact or mastery of the English language, he mounts an extraordinary defence of it in an exchange of letters with Arthur Cormack of Feisean nan Gaidheal. He makes a few pedantic point about ‘race’, defends Mr Gibson’s right to launch a swingeing attack on Gaelic speakers with his shinty stick. When Arthur makes the not unreasonable point that such a column would not be written about, say, the Irish or Pakistani minority, Mr McGrory, for instance, notes in a letter of 2nd October that:
‘in cases such as this, context is everything and the context to remarks about Gaelic is completely different to that surrounding Irish nationality and Urdu. Sadly pejorative remarks about Irish people have to be understood in Scotland against a background including letter bombs and death threats, while those about Urdu have to be understood in the knowledge of recent cases of violent race-hate crime. Happily, the circumstances of Gaelic speakers in this country are far less disturbing.’
One can only conclude from this that, according to the impeccable logic of Euan McGrory, insulting people is fine if there are no violent recriminations. Woe betide us if there are…
And so the correspondence has continued until recently when it petered out and died away, leaving unanswered the various questions that Arthur Cormack had asked. They include the following;
‘What justification, would you offer, in light of various laws and in a tolerant 21st century Scotland, were Gaels, their language and culture denigrated in a newspaper column?’
‘Would your paper publish a column that dismissed the cost of producing publications in various languages by, for example, the health boards which seek to make the health service accessible to people in Scotland who use languages other than English?
‘What justification would you offer, in light of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 confirming Gaelic as an official language of Scotland, were a column to be published flouting that law by showing disrespect towards that language and mocking those who speak it?’
Yet still the silence continues. One can only wonder what Mr McGrory hopes to gain from this. Perhaps, he, too, is trapped in an episode of ‘Dangermouse’ and is hoping for a ‘itch -chaheeeheederumhoderum – helicopter’ to hover above his head and whisk him away from trouble.
If so, he should be reminded that this only happens in the world of children’s cartoons.