King hit or coward’s punch: the language of violence and why it matters
The assault of Daniel Christie has sparked a debate on the terminology of violence and alcohol in Australia. The 18-year-old is in a critical condition after being punched in the head at King’s Cross on New Year’s Eve. After a string of similar incidents — - such as the death of Thomas Kelly in almost the exact same spot in July 2012 — - there are now calls to change the term “king hit” to “coward’s punch”.
“We don’t agree with the popular term king hit,” Daniel Christie’s family said via a statement. “We have heard it referred to as a ‘coward punch’, which seems to be more appropriate. We have all been affected so much by this tragedy, and our clear focus remains with our son and brother during this difficult time.”
New South Wales State Police Minister Mike Gallacher has agreed, telling reporters the only people who wouldn’t back this change are “cowards that would punch people indiscriminately in such a way”. Gallacher says the community should use “coward’s punch” to help embarrass and shame offenders.
But Dr Paul Gruba, a senior lecturer in linguistics at Melbourne University, says changing a popular phrase such as “king hit” is not so simple.
“The crowd that is going to have to change are the ones pulling the king hits,” he told Crikey. “It’s going to have take government advertising and media support. And whether young males are going to change their discourse to shame one of their mates is a far-flung proposition.”
Gruba says the term would first have to find its way into the style guides of the mainstream press, but that would not be enough by itself to change the cultural argot. He points to the example of the term “sex worker” instead of “prostitute”, along with the way the media shapes its coverage of people with mental illness and those living with disabilities.
Gruba says the media is using “sex work” over “prostitution” in order to “make the individual more comfortable”. But he says even if the media began using “coward’s punch”, the general public would not necessarily do the same.
“I don’t know how powerful the media is any more,” he said. “It took years to change with feminism. The most successful cultural change was when George Bush decided not to call it global warming but climate change and he had the power to do it.”
Gruba says any change in the language of violence would have to come from the street.
“Violence on the street is a discourse of war — there are winners and losers. It’s about changing discourse to say there are no winners when someone is hit, there is no king. Maybe they [the perpetrators] still see society in terms of winners and losers, the hunter and hunted,” he said.
Dr Jennifer Pilgrim, from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, agrees the community needs to change the way it views violence. But for her, changing society’s attitude towards alcohol and its misuse is more pressing than changing a two-word phrase.
“To curb alcohol-fuelled violence, we need to alter the drinking culture in Australia — particularly among young people,” she said. “Education campaigns, limitations on sponsorship and advertising of alcohol, and more research to support and guide prevention campaigns are key to a healthier future for Australia.”
Pilgrim is the lead author of a report published in December that found alcohol was to blame in the majority of single-punch fatalities. According to the research, single-punch assaults have resulted in 90 deaths since 2000.
The NSW government is currently considering tougher legislation around alcohol-fuelled violence. A proposed “one-punch” law would carry a maximum penalty of 20 years — double the penalty imposed in Western Australia for a similar offence. The proposed law would also remove the requirement to prove perpetrators knew the punch would be fatal. A change.org petition calling for NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to tackle alcohol-fuelled violence has over 100,000 signatures.