Analysis: how Line of Duty has brought language, culture and linguistics to the mainstream

While the latest run of Line of Duty attracted record numbers of viewers, the rise of the 'Tedism’ has been one of the unforeseen successes of the police crime drama. Superintendent Ted Hastings' colloquial turns of phrase have garnered him a debut single, ‘One Thing’ along with numerous articles listing the series’ most iconic quotes. As commanding officer of Anti-Corruption Unit 12 (AC-12), Hastings’ cultural background is reflected in his use of language and has unconsciously helped bring language, culture and linguistics to the mainstream.

One of the aspects that is most striking about ‘Tedisms’ is that they can generally be classified as idioms linguistically; that is, a group of words that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own. Most of us use idioms everyday and might not be aware we are doing so: for example, if something is ‘a piece of cake’, it usually refers to a simple task and not literally to a piece of cake. The borderline between idiomatic and non-idiomatic language cannot be neatly differentiated and it is this grey area which leads to linguistic ambiguity and confusion at times, but also provides ample scope for verbal creativity as seen in some of the most iconic ‘Tedisms’ from Line of Duty.

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Every Ted Hastings' Tedism from Line of Duty

Bent coppers

If examined literally, this idiom makes very little sense. However, if examined as a linguistic unit, the idiom’s underlying meaning is revealed to a degree. While ‘copper’ is commonly used as a slang term for a police officer, the word ‘bent’ can refer to something that is literally out of shape or figuratively to an individual who is dishonest or corrupt. The idiom’s actual meaning is only revealed when both words are considered together as a unit. It is this idiomatic meaning that has produced the oft repeated reference to corrupt police officers in Line of Duty and ‘the one thing and the one thing only’ the police are interested in.

'I didn't float up the Lagan in a bubble

Understanding particular idioms often involves culturally-specific knowledge, such as knowledge of a particular place. If one is unfamiliar with the idiom ‘I didn’t float up the Lagan in a bubble’, a number of initial questions arise: What and where is the Lagan? Why would one float up the Lagan? Can one float down the Lagan? Why would a bubble float on the Lagan?

The reference to the Lagan river in Belfast clarifies some initial queries, but does not satisfactorily reveal the idiom’s meaning. Idioms are recognised as cultural signs and reflect idioethnic logic. ‘I didn’t float up the Lagan in a bubble’ is an example of the worldview and cultural specificity encoded in idioms of national languages. It is this category of idioms that are currently at risk as more of the world’s languages, especially minor and lesser-used languages, are becoming semantically colonised and culturally-specific knowledge is gradually being lost.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubrudy Show, Adrian Dunbar on life during lockdown for Ted Hastings

One of the more interesting characteristics presented in the most popular 'Tedisms' appears when idioms are literalised and emphasised. In many cases, the literalisation of an idiom as a rhetorical device creates linguistic ambiguity and functions as a basis for humour. Additionally, certain idioms are partially repeated or extended to add emphasis.

'Throw the book’

‘None of my people would plant evidence. They know I would throw the book at them. Followed by the bookshelf’

The addition of the phrase ‘Followed by the bookshelf’ provides no additional information in relation to the idiom’s meaning, but adds to its force. Similarly, the frequently repeated introduction, ‘The name’s Hastings ma’am, like the battle’, is emphasised and expanded in an exchange between Superintendent Hastings and DCC Wise as follows:

‘Your enquiry into ‘H’ should close. This isn't about old battles.

'The name's Hastings, ma’am. I'm the epitome of an old battle.’

The idiom’s meaning is intensified and the literalisation of certain idioms have resulted in some of the most iconic expressions of the entire series.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Rebecca Shekleton from the Shrine of Duty podcast on the sixth season finale of BBC crime drama Line Of Duty

Letter of the law’ (exactly what the law says)

‘We do our duty to the letter of the law. The letter!’

‘Rotten apple’ (a dishonest person)

‘I don’t care if it’s one rotten apple or the whole bloody barrel’

‘Round the houses’ (talking about unimportant things)

‘We’ve been round the houses, Steve. Round the houses and down the bloody drains

Jesus, Mary and Joseph (an exclamation of shock or surprise)

‘Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey’

While the rise of the 'Tedism' has provided comic relief in an otherwise tense and gripping police crime drama, the idioms which have garnered the most public interest are those associated with the character of Ted Hastings whose linguistic, cultural and age profile set him apart from his colleagues. Hastings’ cultural background is reflected in his use of language and his use of idioms makes him a more credible, rounded person, therefore enriching our enjoyment and immersion in the show.

Line of Duty has successfully drawn the public’s attention to the importance of linguistic diversity, cultural heritage and identity in an ever-increasing homogenised society. It's a feat many linguists could only hope to achieve. Now we’re sucking diesel!


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ