'Regina v John Terry': The Discursive Construction of an Alleged Racist Event

Joanna Gavins, Paul Simpson

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This article explores the conformation in discourse of a verbal exchange and its subsequent mediatised and legal ramifications. The event concerns an allegedly racist insult directed by high profile English professional footballer John Terry towards another player, Anton Ferdinand, during a televised match in October 2011. The substance of Terry’s utterance, which included the noun phrase ‘fucking black cunt’, was found by a Chief Magistrate not to be a racist insult, although the fact that these actual words were framed within the utterance was not in dispute. The upshot of this ruling was that Terry was acquitted of a racially aggravated public order offence. A subsequent investigation by the regulatory commission of the English Football Association (FA) ruled, almost a year after the event, that Terry was guilty of racially abusing Ferdinand. Terry was banned for four matches and fined £220,000.

It is our contention that this event, played out in legal rulings, social media and print and broadcast media, constitutes a complex web of linguistic structures and strategies in discourse, and as such lends itself well to analysis with a broad range of tools from pragmatics, discourse analysis and cognitive linguistics. Amongst other things, such an analysis can help explain the seemingly anomalous - even contradictory - position adopted in the legal ruling with regard to the speech act status of ‘fucking black cunt’; namely, that the racist content of the utterance was not contested but that the speaker was found not to have issued a racist insult. Over its course, the article addresses this broader issue by making reference to the systemic-functional interpersonal function of language, particularly to the concepts of modality, polarity and modalisation. It also draws on models of verbal irony from linguistic pragmatics, notably from the theory of irony as echoic mention (c.f. Sperber and Wilson, 1981; Wilson and Sperber, 1992). Furthermore, the article makes use of the cognitive-linguistic framework, Text World Theory (c.f. Gavins, 2007; Werth, 1999) to examine the discourse positions occupied by key actors and adapts, from cognitive poetics, the theory of mind-modelling (c.f. Stockwell, 2009) to explore the conceptual means through which these actors discursively negotiate the event.

It is argued that the pragmatic and cognitive strategies that frame the entire incident go a long way towards mitigating the impact of so ostensibly stark an act of racial abuse. Moreover, it is suggested here that the reconciliation of Terry’s action was a result of the confluence of strategies of discourse with relations of power as embodied by the media, the law and perceptions of nationhood embraced by contemporary football culture. It is further proposed that the outcome of this episode, where the FA was put in the spotlight, and where both the conflict and its key antagonists were ‘intranational’, was strongly impelled by the institution of English football and its governing body both to reproduce and maintain social, cultural and ethnic cohesion and to avoid any sense that the event featured a discernable ‘out-group’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)712-732
JournalDiscourse & Society
Issue number6
Early online date17 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2015


  • banter
  • Text World Theory
  • echoic mention
  • irony
  • football
  • modality
  • mind-modelling
  • sarcasm
  • racist language


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