What’s wrong with “a bunch of migrants”? Looking at the linguistic evidence

This week at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron used the term “a bunch of migrants to describe refugees at a camp in Calais. He was subsequently criticised by Labour MPs and members of the general public on Twitter, and the story was reported on in mainstream newspapers like the Guardian and the Telegraph. Critics described his comments as “dehumanising”, “callous” and “inflammatory”.

Something about David Cameron saying the words “bunch of” to describe a group of people caused a furore – but what was it? Is this how people normally use this phrase, or is this a noteworthy departure from the norm?

Here at CASS we have the unique opportunity to analyse a very large set of everyday conversations between speakers of British English from all over the UK, which participants have been recording in their homes and sending to us to be transcribed. Using the transcriptions, we can use computer software to analyse how words and phrases are used commonly across the entire country.

I searched through 4.5 million words of present day conversation to find out how people in the UK normally use the phrase “bunch of”. I found that “people”, “flowers” and “things” are the most likely words to be described in this way. Beyond this, there are several other words which refer to groups of people:

“kids”, “volunteers”, “retards”, “losers”, “lads”, “individuals”, “friends”, “dickheads”, “dancers”, “Aussies”, “alcoholics”, “thieving sods” and “thieving fuckers”.

Absent from this list is the word “migrants”, which does not occur in this context. The evidence suggests that people do often use “bunch of” to describe groups of people negatively or with distaste. Therefore the upset caused by Cameron’s use of the phrase “a bunch of migrants” is perhaps understandable.

We are still collecting recordings from speakers all over the UK. For information on how to contribute to this project, which is led by Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press, please visit the Spoken BNC2014 website.