Let's begin with a dictionary definition. "Racism: a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others." Not much room there for misinterpreting the word. That, indeed, is why we have dictionaries. They assist those wishing to understand the meaning of language.

Yet curiously, despite such publications being widely available, the response to the news last week that Prince Harry refers to one of his fellow soldiers, an Asian, as "our little Paki friend", and that his father Prince Charles calls his old polo chum, also Asian, the nickname "Sooty", suggests wider dictionary use should be encouraged. Because a worrying proportion of published British opinion seems to be of the mind that neither of these remarks are in the least bit racist. Harry's whispered video monologue about his Asian companion has been written off as "harmless banter". Charles calls his friend by the nickname out of "affection". This defence against the charge of the princes being racists is understandable. We can't see into either heart. Certainly Charles's conduct, particularly within the area of his commendable charity that works with disadvantaged youth, would suggest that he is a passionate and entirely genuine egalitarian.

Harry's conduct informs us that he is an archetypal, privileged, foolish and immature young man, who keeps in with his mates by the adoption of a non-pc demeanour. He may or may not believe himself to be superior to his Asian and black colleagues by virtue of skin pigmentation, and without knowing him personally it's impossible to say whether his regular lapses into juvenile offensiveness are pointers to malicious supremacy fantasies or simply the manifestation of profound stupidity, acknowledging, of course, that the two are far from mutually exclusive. We just don't know.

What we can say for certain is that the language used by both princes, regardless of intention, is undeniably racist. A poll in the Guardian asked readers to vote on the question "Is the term Sooty' offensive?" At the time of writing, 36% voted "Yes, of course it is rooted in prejudice" and a depressing 64% voted "No, it's harmless and affectionate".

But surely both answers to that question are correct. Charles may well have based his friend's nickname on affection, but it is still unavoidably a name rooted in prejudice. If we have to explain its origins and potency to a man educated at Eton and Cambridge, then we are in sorry academic decline.

All language that refers mockingly to a person's skin colour is, was, and always will be about power. It's why the nauseating term "nigger" was reclaimed by black Americans, who decided that by addressing each other thus it recognises that their fellow black citizens are not the architects of their continuing subjugation. Using it between themselves renders the word benign, while increasing its power of offence when employed by a person of another race.

Much has been made of the term "Paki"being used in a similar vein between Asians, but this is entirely disingenuous. Certainly, some Muslim posters on online forums employ the term as shorthand when discussing familial origins, but when have a group of Asians ever whooped and high-fived each other with cheerful shouts of "Hey, Paki!"? In the UK it remains an ugly, aggressive word, more usually spat out in hatred, slyly muttered in contempt, or sniggered at in the playground. For decades it has had the power to belittle and alienate children, emasculate hard-working men and frighten innocent women. And because of that, my generation, whose parents lazily employed it to describe the local shop, have all but erased it from our hard-drive vocabulary.

The spurious argument that the censorship of such pejoratives is a threat to free speech is perhaps the dumbest of all. It is not only possible, but preferable, to rail against an ideology or individual behaviour, which may give offence to those attacked, without resorting to racial, sexist or homophobic slurs. Insults can often be glorious, but only if they are directly connected to conduct and not to accident of birth. Being careful with words has nothing to do with free speech, and everything to do with increasing enlightenment.

Every taboo says much about who we are and what we cherish, and the significant aspect of this row is that Harry has unconditionally apologised. So he should, he was caught. There is no doubt other soldiers use this word, and worse, all the time. I can testify to that having once suffered a train carriage of drunk squaddies for nearly 400 miles. But it must be recognised that it is very wrong, and Harry has either acknowledged such or been made to. Prince Charles, regardless of his friend's protestations of enjoying his nickname, should follow suit. To enjoy politically incorrect nicknames between friends, those friends must be absolute equals, but we can be fairly certain that the affectionate nickname Mr "Sooty" Dhillon calls Charles in return will be "Sir".

If two heirs to the throne, with all the might of the British establishment behind them, do not genuinely recognise the power words have to wound, to ruin lives, to continue prejudice and stereotyping, then what chance do the victims of such language have to be regarded as the equals they are in the wider community?

Of course if I'm wrong, why don't we carry out a scientific study? Let's gather the numerous bloggers who claim that "Paki" is just a geographical abbreviation, and not at all offensive when used to address Asians of any origin, and ask them to do the following. Go into town and approach a group of fit, healthy, British Asian teenage boys, fashionably dressed, sporting spiky hair and leather jackets, and say this: "Excuse me my little Paki friends, but which way is the bus station?"

May I please be there to witness them enjoying the ensuing "harmless banter"? Purely for linguistic research purposes, of course.

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