Sunday, October 17, 2010

No 'chuntering' allowed on the House floor

One of my favorite bits of TV occurs early each Wednesday at 4 a.m. (Pacific Time) while I am still sound asleep. Across the Atlantic, eight time zones away from California, as London's Big Ben strikes noon (British Time), it's time for Prime Minister's Questions. Thank goodness for my DVR.

You just never know what you might learn from the British.

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster,
home of the British Parliament.
(Photo: Michael Dickens, 2005.)

Each Wednesday, when Parliament is in session, Prime Minister's Questions (PMQ) takes place on the floor of the British House of Commons, and it is broadcast live in the United States by C-SPAN2 (7 a.m ET/4 a.m. PT). If you've never seen PMQ, it can be best described as a verbal boxing match, full of high drama, that lasts for about 30 minutes and allows for the opposition leader and other members of Parliament of all parties to grill the Prime Minister with questions on important matters of state and foreign affairs.

PMQ also serves its American audience with an up-close, yet entertaining, look at the art and style of British political culture.  Perhaps, our politicians could learn a thing or two from their British counterparts.

My favorite part of PMQ happens early on when David Cameron, the current prime minister, goes face-to-face with the opposition leader.  Until earlier this year, Mr. Cameron was the opposition leader, and believe me, he found utter joy in sparing with former prime minister Gordon Brown. Often, the lively and passionate Cameron got the best of the droll Brown in these exchanges of spirited oratory and debate. Most weeks, Brown looked like he would rather be anywhere than on the floor of the House being put to task by the Tories. Before Brown, Tony Blair took great delight in being quick-witted with his answers and defending the dignity of the Labour Party.

Last week, Mr. Cameron faced new opposition leader Ed Miliband for the first time.

While this first exchange between the leaders of the Conservative (Tory) and Labour parties wasn't particularly memorable ~ in fact, Mr. Miliband appeared a bit nervous ~ what struck me as funny, and got my attention, was when the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, used the power of the English language to defuse the cantankerous cat calls coming from Tory MPs, who were trying to fluster the young Mr. Miliband, while also lecturing them on decorum.

While PMQ isn't quite a no-holds-barred exchange, there's plenty of partisan bantering, whistling, shouts of "Hear, hear" and, occasionally, laughter.  For a moment, you might have thought you were taking in a night of British theater in the West End.  

Thank goodness, the Speaker, who presides over PMQ and determines which members may speak, steps in from time to time to maintain order and civility during the debate and lecture the MPs on courtesy and manners.  This week, not only was Bercow a master thespian, he also played the role of college professor very well, indeed.  To wit:

Mr Speaker: "Order. The Leader of the Opposition will be heard, and if there are colleagues chuntering away who then hope to catch the eye of the Chair, I am afraid they are deluded."

Immediately, I made a mental note to myself:  "Need to look up the word 'chunter' and find out what the Speaker was lecturing the MPs about."  Sure enough, I typed the world "chunter" into the search engine for and here's what I found:


Verb (used without object) British Informal; to grumble or to grouse mildly, or tediously.

Origin: 1590-1600;  original dialect (Midlands, N. England) chunter, chunder, chunner;  cf. Scots channer in same sense; expressive word of obscure origin.

So, there you have it, a new word for the day: chunter.  It rhymes with punter. Now, if only I can find a way to work chunter into a proper conversation among friends.

Yes, you just never know what you might learn from our friends across the ocean.

1 comment:

  1. I'm from the Northwest of England and it's good to see a word I've used all my life down in print, albeit with the 't'! I use it all the time when talking to my mother about my sisters and some of the other women in the family: they're forever 'chunnering on about something', and we refer to it as the family 'chunner culture'. It's like gossip, but subtly different - it's more the continuous talking from which you are excluded, and which you cannot influence. It's not neccesarily malicious, but it draws conclusions. It's less 'Guess what I've heard...', as in gossip, and more 'Let's talk this over, and over, and over..' A teacher also might say to a class 'Stop your chunnering and get on with your work!'. Good stuff indeed! I hope these words never die. Graham