This article is a preview from the Autumn 2019 edition of New Humanist

violence late 13th century, from Latin “violentia”

Last October, there was a debate about violent language. This arose because an anonymous group of Tory MPs had talked about Theresa May needing to “bring a noose” to the next meeting. No matter how threatening and offensive this language is, we could ask, is it of itself violent? Should we say that any violence expressed in words is ultimately no different from physical violence?

The word is first found in written English from about 1300 onwards. It evolved in the speech of people living in what is now France, from the Latin “violentia”. According to the Oxford Dictionary, Latin speakers could use “violentia” to mean “the use of force, aggressiveness, passionateness, destructive or overwhelming force”. Clearly then, this idea that we can be violent both in deed and in speech, or even in our mood, goes back a long way.

When people started using the word in English, writers used it to mean both deeds and vehement or passionate emotion. In Othello, Shakespeare has “Mark me, with what violence she first lov’d the Moor”. The modern political sense is that speech can be violent either because it incites physical violence or because it imagines injury or death. And there is a further sense too: to be extremely abusive, racist or grossly insulting is described by some as violent. “Verbal abuse is emotional violence,” pyschologist Berit Brogaard wrote in the online journal Psychology Today in March this year. The government industrial relations agency ACAS guidelines on race hate, though, make distinctions between “violence”, “hostility”, “discrimination” and “harassment”.

If we turn all this on its head, we find forms of damage to the human body often not described as violent at all: extreme poverty, industrial pollution, disease and fatalities – such as that caused by avoidable workplace accidents or, say, the hardships caused by exposure to damp in bad accommodation. In fact, it’s much more common to hear about a speaker speaking so badly that they were “doing violence to the language” than it is to see these kinds of social human damage described as violence.