It was a kind and intelligent French friend who once informed me, so I have no reason to doubt her sincerity, that there is no word in the French language for “bully”. I think I was so stunned by this revelation that I failed to absorb the rest of our conversation: presumably, I asked if that means bullying doesn’t occur in France (it’s exactly the kind of thing I would normally ask, were I not stunned), but I’ve forgotten her explanation. Do French enfants never call each other names, flush weaklings’ heads down the toilette or give each other “le wedgie”? J’y crois pas...
...mais, attend - imagine my chagrin, when my German teacher informed me very recently that there is also no Deutsche word for bully? Total falsch, ja? Sadly, nein. According to my dictionary, a bully in German is a “tyrannischer Kerl”, which hardly trips off the tongue: “pick on someone your own size, you tyrannischer Kerl!”
So, what? Does bullying really only happen in English-speaking lands? Whatever Wittgenstein may have said about words being the limit of our world, I’m not entirely sure you can logically conclude that having no concise word for a concept means that the behaviour doesn’t exist. Look at our joy at adopting the German word “schadenfreude”, which describes the pleasure we take in someone else’s misfortune. Not least, the British take pleasure in the Germans’ misfortune at having coined such a revealing expression.
But I had reason to think about tyrannischer Kerls today, when I went to the park and got roundly picked on by a gang of five-year-olds. In fact, my experience not only provides empirical evidence that German-speakers can indulge in a spot of bullying, even if they are at a loss to talk about it afterwards, but also suggests that all the above-mentioned European languages require at least two new words: one to describe a child who is so self-assured that s/he is not in the least intimidated by or respectful of adults; and a second to express the discomfort of a mother who realises that she has no clue how to handle such a child when one is giving her a hard time in a playground.
This is the third time – the third time! – that I have felt this undefined sensation just recently. First, it was my neighbour’s six-year-old who refused to budge up to let another kid sit at the table:
Her: There’s no room.
Me: Come on, move up – make some room...
Her: *turning round to stare me right in the eye* THERE IS NO ROOM.
Me: *goldfish noises*.
Second, it was a pair of tweenies sitting at the top of the slide in the playground so my son couldn’t use it:
Them: blah, blah, boys, shoes, homework, boys, blah, my stupid parents, blah, blah, boys.
Me: Hey, ladies! Can you come down so my boy can use the slide?
Them: blah, blah, boys, shoes, snogging, boys, blah, blah, nail varnish.
Me: Hello? Could you move?
Them: blah, blah, *sigh expressing infinite disdain*, blah, boys, Twilight, hair, blah.
And today, it was three five-year-olds who let my little toddling Alpha Blondie climb right up the most treacherous ladder in the playground, inside a giant grasshopper no less, before blocking the top and jeering at him as he cried. And then, when Tiger Mother scaled the heights of the grasshopper to rescue her cub, stood jeering at her too...:
Them: Nigh! Nigh! NIGH! (for they are Swiss German children)
Me: Let him come up.
Them: Nigh! NIGH! NIGH! No babies! No grown-ups! NIGH!
Me: He’s only little. It’s dangerous - let him get up.
Them: *whooping and hopping from leg to leg like extras in Lord of the Flies* NIGH! NIGH! NIGH! No grown-ups! Go down! NIIIIIIGH!
Me: *low growl*
Yes, I actually growled. It may have been a throwback to a time when I learnt to do that as part of puppy training, but I think it was actually something more instinctive, something innate. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought kids were supposed to respect adults, which of course is a polite and modern way of saying “I thought kids were supposed to be shit-scared of adults”?
I know I was when I was a kid, and now I’m an adult, I want kids to be shit-scared of me. Not my own kids or my friends’ kids, of course, but strange kids who won’t let me onto the slide – I want them to be scared of me.
Why? Well, first, because I’m grown up enough to realise what children do not: there was enough space at the table, a slide is not a bench and the grasshopper ladder is no place for a toddler to be stranded while a trio of little bullies-in-the-making explore the nastier side of their nature.
And secondly, because this is the Order of Things: once, I was small and scared and I jumped when an adult told me to, but now I’m big and scary and I want kids to jump when I tell them to.
Goodness, don’t I sound like a tyrannische Kerl?