In February 2016, equal rights campaigner Peter Tatchell found himself on the receiving end of accusations of racism and bigotry. Fran Cowling, a National Union of Students representative on LGBT issues in Britain, asked for Tatchell to withdraw from a university debate, saying she wouldn’t share a platform with him.
Tatchell defended himself vigorously, mobilizing support from other veterans of radical campaigns from the 1970s and 80s. In the end Ms Cowling was the one to step down, but not before a ferocious debate had been launched about the NUS no-platform policy and the limits of free speech.
So what is no-platforming?
Originating in the 1970s, the no-platform policy was designed to prevent racist, far right organizations from promoting their views on university campuses, and was a feature of student politics in the 70s and 80s.
It has come alive again recently, but this time veteran progressives such as ex-politician George Galloway and feminist writer Germaine Greer have found themselves under scrutiny for their outspoken opinions. New student leaders say that they are simply upholding the no-platform tradition of the 70s and 80s, to prevent social reactionaries (regardless of their past credentials) from spreading hatred and bigotry. The older generations accuse today’s student activists of being part of a ‘snowflake generation’, which is oversensitive and unable to face the challenges of free speech. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the argument between two generations of radicals has been very public and very acrimonious.
The word no-platform is not only of interest for its topicality but also linguistically, because it showcases the way words in English can transition from one part of speech to another. (Notice how I’ve cleverly shoehorned in examples of nouns that are now also used as verbs.)
The possibility of making verbs from nouns is a long-standing feature of English. What’s particularly interesting about no-platform is that it’s not a simple noun, but a two-word phrase that has been transformed into a verb. What’s more, it’s used as a transitive verb – you can ‘no-platform someone’. In fact, corpus data suggests that this use of the verb, and particularly the passive form, is a recent occurrence. See, for example, this headline:
Ignore the excuses – Peter Tatchell has been no-platformed.
This type of transformation isn’t limited to nouns or noun phrases. There are even examples of adverbial phrases being turned into verbs. For example, these two words come from the area of business (which seems to be a particularly rich source of this kind of linguistic change):
It’s hard sometimes not to wince (inwardly at any rate) when you hear some of these usages. But is that the right reaction? Should we decry their use as a decline in standards among contemporary speakers of English? Or should we embrace these words as a sign of the flexibility and creativity of English? It’s rather like the argument about no-platforming – what is offensive to some is a matter of freedom for others. And like that argument, it’s a debate that is likely to run and run.
Martin Moore is a Managing Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department. Although he has authored books and online resources for learners of English, this is the first time that he has blogged on grammar.