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King hit or coward’s punch: the language of violence and why it matters

Assault victim Daniel Christie’s family has argued the term “king hit” should be changed to “coward’s punch”. Crikey intern Broede Carmody looks at the arguments for and against the change.

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.

  • 1
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    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.” The coward punch merchants are a minority. And not a popular one either. The media generally supports the community reads when there is a strong reaction. there is certainly a strong reaction to the number of cowardly attacks resulting in death. It is time for responsible media to get in front of this and stop using the dated and certainly misleading terminology for what is now known correctly as a coward punch. Edward James

  • 2
    Matt Hardin
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    After all of the incidents in recent years how can any defence credibly make the argument the accused did not know one punch could kill? Why is this not covered under manslaughter? Why do we need a new offence?

  • 3
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Maybe a little off topic but in my industry, construction, there is a zero tolerance attitude to fighting practised by managsment. All involved are sacked whether agressor or victim which can be unfair for the victim sometimes. In the crib huts the older men bemoan the fact that its no longer possible to “sort your problems out” with a punchup to head nodding agreement. Few are brave enough to speak up and call fighting stupid because its the easiest way for many men to project “toughness” without actually risking the physical pain a real fight entails

  • 4
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Overt support for Magistrate His Honour Greg Grogin (a former policeman) who dished up two years for assault, to NRL player Russell Packer. A football player who finished up a violent assault by jumping on a victims head. Will soon sort out the problem with the minority who practice coward punches. Edward James

  • 5
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone really believe that the idiots who do this would take any notice what it is called? All they want is a moment of “fame” caught on camera to laugh about later.

  • 6
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I believe they would soon take notice if they were locked up for a few years for a coward punch, with no parole option! But there is a growing suspicion among taxpayers, that our political allsorts are the biggest cowards! Edward James

  • 7
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    The media could for once take the lead here by referring only to a coward punch in such incidents …and guess what… at no cost.

  • 8
    The Pedanticist
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Quote: “On New Year’s Eve, an 18 year old male was “king hit” on the streets of Sydney in an apparently unprovoked attack…. On the same night, just over an hour’s drive south of Sydney, a 21 year old woman was grabbed from behind, dragged into nearby sand dunes, and raped.

    ….When discussing the “king hit”, Police Prosecutor Sergeant Lisa McEvoy called the event “horrific”, noting that it was “completely unprovoked”. There have been numerous calls for tougher penalties and requests to change the term “king hit” to “coward punch”. The senseless act of violence has been called brutal, horrific, savage and an act of thuggery.

    When discussing the rape, Acting Inspector Dan Richardson of the Wollongong Police said the assault was an “unfortunate reminder for people to avoid walking alone” and “for friends to keep an eye on each other”, suggesting that “it might have helped if a different route was taken”. Articles discussing the rape all mention that the victim was walking alone and had been out a New Year’s celebrations. There have been no calls for harsher penalties for rapists, no descriptions of the incident as brutal or horrific.”


  • 9
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    There you go Bill. So easy. We all recall the Newcastle Herald Shine the Light campaign. With luck and the perseverance of parents and family members some rock spiders will be locked up eventually. Edward James

  • 10
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    If Australian taxpayers want the change to happen bad enough it will happen! It is always up to use the peoples. Edward James

  • 11
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    that should have be US buit i distracted by Michael Smith on 2GB.com exposing the furtherance of fraud. It is a shame crikey once a leader on this stuff is left behind on this one ! Edward James

  • 12
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Given the success of ‘Drink Drive - Bloody Idiot’ this could really be something that makes a difference.

    I’m not sure that ‘Coward’s Punch’ is the right phrase. It has to be a word that the perpetrators already use pejoratively or you can find it attracting anti-authority kudos. ‘Loser’s Punch’ or ‘Wimp’s Punch’ are the kind of thing that might work.

  • 13
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I want to know what Helen Razer thinks about this critically important issue.

  • 14
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Andy Bob the perpetrators are cancers on our community! We have adopted “coward punch” the cowards have no say they don’t count Andy! We have already identified them as cowards. it remains to start locking them up for years at a time. They will get the message Andy because freedom is a currency we are all familiar with! Edward James

  • 15
    Edward James
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Oh Crikey come on ? 2GB is red hot right now exposing the labor coverup involving very senior people in the Labor party. Coward punch ???

  • 16
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    It may be a coward’s punch but what young thug with an overload of booze is going to define the meaning of the terminology? Perhaps the Australian public are the real cowards as we do nothing to make the police and the judiciary
    to penalise the perpetrators.

    Australians are great whingers about something which bugs them yet, how few of us ever really do anything?

  • 17
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    ANDYBOB: I like your ‘loser’s punch’ a lot.

  • 18
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Having been king hit twice, and almost thrice, I don’t really think the name matters at all. My assailants were not drunk, although one of them had been drinking, and two of them were probably fulfilling there initiation requirements. They were relatively gentle, mostly because I saw it coming and went down with the punch satisfying their need for supremacy. I won all the other street attacks by an average of 100 yards. None of my assailants was likely to have been a reader of the left-leaning press.

  • 19
    Alan Davies
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like the term “coward’s punch” because it implies that it would be OK if the aggressor gave his victim due warning and the opportunity to offer a defence. No! Any physical aggression towards a party who doesn’t want to fight should be regarded as serious criminal behaviour.

  • 20
    zut alors
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Remove the word ‘punch’ - it’s too masculine & has heroic connotations.

  • 21
    shane gill
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    The problem with a law directed to a single punch is that it removes the focus on personal culpability. If it was your friend or relative who was the thrower of the single punch, causing terrible harm or death, would you think your friend or relative would be scarred by that very action.? Would you want them to be treated as though they had persisted in an ongoing attack where they had thrown one stupid punch?

  • 22
    Draco Houston
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    King Hit is already considered cowardly (hint: the king is not the guy throwing the punch).

  • 23
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    The alcohol flood, and its concomitant violence, couldn’t be anything to do with the loss to the testosterone community of cheap and freely available cannabis could it? Imagine if dopers could avoid pubs entirely as in the 70s when an ounce was $30, less than 15% of a young bloke’s weekly wage at the time. Now it’s a third or half, if available.
    Aren’t we glad that all that marijuwanna fuelled violence no longer plagues the community?

  • 24
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Already heard the term used on morning television news.
    And it was effective in eliciting the disgust of those listening.
    Language belongs to the people, not a group of “experts” who colonise it so as to rule its use.
    Coward punch.
    Should be used in the proposed legislation instead of one punch.
    What part of the truth in the phrase “Coward Punch” is debatable, as it appears to be in the article?
    One does tend to be unimpressed by this pseudo-intellectual posturing on important issues by self-proclaimed experts, with their confected quibbling of commonsense.

  • 25
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Hmm- Like Vitesse above I have been the recipient of a number of these assaults . I would take issue over a couple of important technical points. The defining characteristic of a king hit is that YOU DONT SEE IT COMING-and ‘gentle’ is not a word I would describe- my consistent experience was a unexpected explosion in the face and being laid out, stunned, on the ground. Is is a guttersnipe’s tactic and it is unfortunate that it has been associated with the word ‘king’. Perhaps ‘Coward’s punch” will do the trick- “C —  — ‘s hit” would have a better chance of entering the vernacular but not pressworthy- I dont know but this low caste behaviour reflects badly on masculine identity and needs to be challenged.

  • 26
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    While every death is tragic, I don’t know why so much press is being put on the “king hit”. 90 deaths over 13 years is not a lot of deaths (works out as around 7.5 deaths a year). This is when you look at around 724500 physical assaults a year that occur.(abs figures). So the chances of being killed after a physical assault is pretty small (0.001%).
    Forget about the “king hit” or and just work on minimising the greater assault rate, which affects more people.

  • 27
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Sorry I should replace “king hit” with “Meaningless semantic difference that makes us feel as if we can change the world through terminology”

  • 28
    Swan Messiah
    Posted Sunday, 12 January 2014 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    We should call it what it is; Murder.

  • 29
    Michael Scates
    Posted Monday, 13 January 2014 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I think when people start acting like animals we should treat them as such. Coward punchers should be put in stocks in the middle of town and have produce thrown at them. THEN be taken away by police and treated like a human IN COURT.
    Be possibly the worst thing for a person under the influence to go through when they’re hung over.