'Sponger' is slang for Catholic, says PSNI language guide

'Sponger' is derogatory slang for a Catholic, according to the PSNI's guide to offensive language. Brendan Hughes examines the internal police paper's intriguing contents

'Sponger' is listed as unacceptable slang for a Catholic, according to the police document
Brendan Hughes

IT was the term famously used during the Troubles by British prime minister Harold Wilson to criticise striking loyalists.

In a 1974 speech, the Labour leader described as 'spongers' those involved in the Ulster Workers' Council strike that brought the north to a standstill in protest against power-sharing.

"People who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods," he said.

"Who do these people think they are?"

But four decades on, the term has been linked to Catholics – in an internal PSNI document on unacceptable and offensive language.

The newly-unearthed paper seeks to ensure officers and staff use language that is respectful and does not discriminate, stereotype or offend.

In the process, it provides a comprehensive list by religious, community and minority grouping of terms considered off-limits.

While most of the words and phrases regarded as offensive are understandable, some are unexpected.

In a list of unacceptable terms for Catholics, the word 'sponger' is included.

The others are 'Chuck/Chuckie', 'Fenian', 'Taig', 'Tim', 'Mick/Micky', 'Paddy' and 'Free Stater'.

For Protestants, the offensive words include 'Hun', 'Prod', 'Orangie', 'Jaffa', 'Snout' and 'Flag Hag'.

The last example reflects new terms used particularly on social media since the flag protests of 2012/13 over a decision to limit the flying of the union flag from Belfast city hall.

"Terms such as ‘flag hag’ (used to describe Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist [PUL] women protesting about the decision by Belfast City Council on the issue of the union flag) and ‘flegs’ (a word mimicking the local dialect and pronunciation of the word ‘flag’) are seen as demeaning the PUL community identity," the paper states.

SDLP East Derry MLA John Dallat expressed surprise at the term 'sponger'.

"It's surprises me the term 'sponger', that anyone would think that should be applied to Catholics," he said.

"I would have thought that for many decades Catholics have made an enormous contribution to the economy of Northern Ireland.

"In many ways to suggest that it can apply to Catholics is ancient, and I suggest may spring from the old days when unionists liked to create the impression that they were all hard-working while the Catholics were all on the dole.

"It's probably to some people very offensive and to others very astonishing."

The document lists dozens of unacceptable terms in various categories, including words that should not be used to describe elderly people.

They include 'geriatric', 'OAP', 'oul man', 'old codger' and 'oul lady'.

The PSNI said its most recent appropriate language guide was outsourced and compiled in 2013 via the Institute for Conflict Research.

A spokesman said: "The report was widely consulted upon. The research project consulted with approximately 65 groups representative of the different categories, with responses from around 30 of these areas.

"Inclusions and possible amendments to this revised guide was directed by those involved within this consultation group.

"The unacceptable words for any of the categories are just that, unacceptable/derogatory and hence why they were selected as examples.

"None of the unacceptable/derogatory/slang listings provided are sentiments that the PSNI either agrees with, or condones the use of."

He added: "The PSNI endeavours to build relationships with all the people it serves. We strive to ensure that the communications we use do not cause offence, or lead to a breakdown in relationships or trust between the PSNI and those we serve.

"The intention of this guide is to give direction and raise awareness to all our staff and officers the potential impact that our choice of language can have on the people we interact with. Our aim is to be a professional service for all of the community. This document is designed to assist and support our officers and staff, and it is with these good intentions that this document was published."


Some of the terms that should not be used according to the PSNI's appropriate language guide – and what to say instead


(Don't say)

- Chuck/chuckie

- Fenian

- Taig

- Tim

- Mick/Micky

- Paddy

- Free Stater

- Sponger

(Do say)


Roman Catholic


(Don't say)

- Hun

- Blacks/Black man

- Prod

- Orangie

- Jaffa

- Bluenose

- Snout

- Flag hag

(Do say)




(Don't say)

- Geriatric


- Oul man

- Old codger

- Old fool

- Oul lady

(Do say)

- Older/elderly person

- Older/elderly gentleman

- Older/elderly lady

- Pensioner (only if of pension age)

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