Which words are banned in the House of Commons?

MPs are banned from rubbishing each other as cowards, gits, hooligans, swines, traitors – or even a RAT.

While canny politicians have honed sneaky ways of bending rules to insult each other, here's what they can't say…

Which words are banned in the House of Commons?

Tory MP Anna Soubry furiously denied calling Ed Miliband a “sanctimonious c***” during a Commons debate back in 2015.

The then Defence Minister slammed the accusation as “outrageous” after she was allegedly filmed swearing in a scene cut from BBC fly-on-the-wall show Inside the Commons.

That came a year after saucy Penny Mordaunt, a Royal Navy reservist, raised eyebrows when she gave a Commons speech filled with innuendo.

Following a dare from Navy pals, in 2014 the Tory MP used the word ''c***'' six times and ''lay'' or ''laid'' five times.

Former Speaker Betty Boothroyd told off Tory Tony Marlow when he called Harriet Harman a "stupid cow" while debating the BSE crisis in 1996.

Then there are the brazen gestures.

In 2019 SNP MP Steven Bonnar 'insulted the Queen' by crossing his fingers while swearing an oath to her.

And although not in the Commons, who can forget the late – and great – fiery Baroness Trumpington who famously stuck two fingers up at a Tory peer in the House of Lords for describing people who had served in World War Two as “pretty old”.

There are quite a few words which are off-limits for MPs to utter in the House – despite appearing inoffensive to non-parliamentarians.

They can't use insulting, coarse, or abusive language, particularly to fellow MPs – no matter how much they annoy them.

Thin-skinned Speakers over the years have objected to the following words, to the surprise of those of us who are used to colourful language:

Hooligan: MPs can't call each other hooligans, but in 2020 it didn't stop Labour’s Ed Miliband accusing the PM of “legislative hooliganism” for supporting the Internal Market Bill.

Blackguard: Centuries ago, calling someone a 'blackguard' – our equivalent of 'scoundrel' – was a massive insult.

Harking back to the 1500s, it was used to describe a menial kitchen servant, who were usually deemed untrustworthy, explains the BBC.

Coward: This is included on the actual official list of words considered inappropriate for use in the House. Yet former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was branded a 'disgrace' for attacking MPs for being "too cowardly" to hold an election, dramatically adding: "This Parliament is dead!"

Pecksniffian: Never heard of it? Probably because it's a historical – some might say a hysterical-sounding – term.

It is based on Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, where pompous character Mr Pecksniff takes the moral high ground, but basically he's a phoney, whose "soft and oily" manner belies the fact that appearances are deceiving.

Pipsqueak: Ex-Labour deputy leader Tom Watson got into hot water when he used it to describe Michael Gove. It means an "insignificant or contemptible person", according to the Oxford Dictionary.

Git: No, not as in "git out of here".

Git is a variation of the old Scottish word 'get', which is related to the old Biblical 'beget' – so basically back in the old days, you were accusing someone of being born out of wedlock.

Despite it being a really old word, 'git' is also a banned insult, according to the Commons' list of "unparliamentary language".

Guttersnipe: Nothing to do with plumbers – guttersnipe was used to describe street urchins. So you'd effectively be slating an MP as being low-born, and living near the gutters.

Others banned terms include: bag of wind, blatherskite, dim-witted saboteur, rat, swine, Canadian Mussolini, stoolpigeon, ignoramus and traitor.

A 'blatherskite' is someone who spouts a load of nonsense, or 'blathers' – giving empty talk in a loud way.

Comedy Central reckons that despite these rules, there is an "insane level of sarcasm" in the House, where "whoever's loudest wins".

The channel might have been watching the outrageous performance of ex-Speaker John Bercow, who insultingly told Michael Gove: “Behave yourself. Be a good boy, young man. Be a good boy.”

Terminological inexactitude

Another thing MPs cannot do is accuse their colleagues of being a liar – with the Speaker quick to request they withdraw any such comment.

In 2013, the DUP's Nigel Dodds was ordered from the Commons after accusing the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, of "deliberate deception".

Some MPs have sought to get round this rule by using a phrase first coined by Winston Churchill, who once accused an opposition member of using a “terminological inexactitude”.

Tired and emotional

Being accused of appearing "tired and emotional" is another euphemism used by MPs to accuse a fellow member of something they are not allowed to – in this case of being drunk.

It was first popularised by Private Eye, when it was used in a spoof memo about the state of Labour Cabinet minister George Brown in 1967.

Other phrases used to mean the same thing are that the MP is “not quite himself” or is “overwrought”.

Why are words banned in the House of Commons?

There is an official list of words which are banned because they're considered inappropriate for use in the House of Commons.

MPs must show "good temper and moderation".

Unparliamentary language breaks the rules of politeness in the House of Commons Chamber.

When it happens, the Speaker orders an MP to withdraw it.

Refusal to retract a comment might lead to an MP being disciplined, for example the Speaker could 'name' the Member – in other words suspend them for up to five days for a first 'offence'.

It's all part of the UK government's sometimes bizarre and archaic rules.

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