Posts Tagged 'language'

As You, like, Like it

I was listening to my nine-year-old grandson this morning as he described to his grandmother a practice session at football:

“Another thing I like to do is, like, when another boy is, like, just about to, like, kick the ball I, like, rush in and tackle him. That,” he added, “is really cool! I really, like, like doing that.”

How on earth, I thought to myself, did I manage, when I was his age, without this peculiar piece of verbal padding? And where did it, like, come from? I suppose its equivalent in my day was the  simple “um“.  Or possibly an “er“, or the slightly more high-faluting “ah” beloved of Ann Widecombe.

Come to think of it, though, modern English speech is full of such meaningless litter. There is the rather tentative “I mean” and the ubiquitous “you know” made particularly fashionable by our last prime minister. (In Mr Blair’s case it was,  I presume,  intended to sound ‘matey’.  Mrs Thatcher, on the other hand, used it in an entirely different way, intended to convey her conviction that you very obviously didn’t know. With her it would always begin a sentence, as an alternative to “Look . . .”, whereas with Blair it was always, you know, in the middle.)

And then there is that curious sound which started life as the six-word phrase “do you know what I mean?” but which, with the aid of a glottal stop, has now become compressed into a single verbal blur; something like “joonowo’imeen”.

I knew a distinguished economist once who found it almost impossibe to start a sentence, or even a subordinate clause, without the words “in fact . . .”. The more speculative his pronouncement, the more he was likely to use it. In fact I once heard him preface a reply to a question with “In fact, in fact, . . .”. But that’s an economist for you.

I suppose such phrases have a function, in that they give one a moment in which to think of what to say next. But I feel sure our ancestors managed to converse without their aid. Try to imagine Hamlet saying:

“To be or, like, not to be. I mean, that is, you know, the question. Whether ’tis, like, nobler ….”

Well, well, well!

Those who read this blog – if there are any – will know that I am prone to grumble about the way our English language is changing. In part, this is the routine reaction of an old pedant who sees ‘rules’ that he learnt as a boy being flouted and disregarded by the young. And I am, of course, well aware that such changes will continue long after I am gone, and that any living language is bound to change over time. I just find it regrettable that so many of the current changes are, in my view, changes for the worse  in terms of clarity of meaning.

Even when I am not grumbling, though, I remain fascinated by questions of how, when, where and why such changes arise.  The use of the word ‘cool’, for example, to indicate approval (as opposed to low temperature) still sounds alien to my aged ear. I believe it originated in the jazz culture of the American South – but how did it acquire this new meaning? And why has it been adopted by almost every English-speaker under forty?

Again, I am puzzled when I ask someone how they are and they reply “I’m good!” – as though I had enquired about their moral welfare. What’s wrong with the “I’m well, thanks!” that I grew up with?

And talking of the word ‘well’, I find it equally odd to hear it used as a qualifying adjective in place of ‘very’ – as in “He was well angry!” To me, that sounds wrong; but then I sheepishly remember that there are precedents, even in such an authority as the King James bible: “… in whom I am well pleased.” And, come to think of it, I have written ‘well aware’ in the first paragraph of this post. So I must declare myself  a ‘logophage’ (a word I have just invented, from Greek roots, to signify ‘one who eats his own words’.)

I suppose, then, I must accept that I am fighting a losing battle on the language front. I will continue, however, to man the ramparts, and decline to adopt what I consider inappropriate usages. Ah well . . .

Striking the happy media

Time for another of my moans about linguistic infelicities.

Many years ago, man had really only one way of communicating – the spoken word. Then came writing, and printing; a few centuries on came the telephone, and then radio, and then television. Soon there arose the need to have a single word that would embrace all these different methods. Each was – is – a medium of communication; so it made sense, when referring to all of them, to use the plural of medium, which – because of its Latin root – is media (though it could be argued that mediums would be equally acceptable, and even perhaps preferable).

Anyway, the media soon became part of common parlance. But far too many people nowadays (including some journalists who should know better) seem to forget that it is in fact a plural word, and come out with remarks like “The media is to blame” – which seems to defeat the whole purpose of having a word that refers to  many entities.

I know there are words – such as the public – which can take a singular or a plural verb depending  on the context; but I don’t think this applies to the media. Anyone want to argue?

All is not gold

Following on from my last post – I wonder why the goldfinch is so called? It has, of course, a bar of yellow on its wings; but far more striking, to my mind, is its red mask. But then, I suppose the ‘Red-faced Finch’ would be less euphonious, if more accurate.

Curiously, the American goldfinch is actually gold, or at least yellow, almost all over and is therefore more appropriately named. Yet the name must have been brought over from Europe by the first settlers. In fact, I can almost see that rugged, fur-capped pioneer peering up into a tree and muttering, “Heck, now that really is something like a gold finch!”

Taking issue

There is a matter I would like to discuss – a subject near to my heart – which concerns the problem I have in accepting the over-use of a certain word. This difficulty arises from the fact that most people, these days, seem to know no alternatives to this word. Whether it’s a fault in my hardware or a defect in my software, or a question raised in parliament, or a dispute between neighbours, it’s all covered by the same word: ISSUE.

In fact, I could (and many people would) re-write the preceding paragraph as follows:

There is an issue I would like to discuss – an issue near to my heart – which concerns the issue I have in accepting the over-use of a certain word. My issue issues from the fact that many people, these days, seem to know no alternatives to this word. Whether it’s an issue in my hardware or an issue in my software, or an issue raised in parliament, or an issue between neighbours, it’s all covered by the same word: ISSUE.

Not that I have anything against the word itself. It’s a fine word, with a respectable history. It’s just that it is used so much now that many other, equally respectable, words – such as those I used in my first paragraph – are now unemployed; on the dole. Which seems a pity.

Listen to any newscast, or read any newspaper column, and I can pretty well guarantee that you will find ‘issue’ used at least once, and often many times over. Why? What have those other words done, to be consigned to the linguistic scrap-heap?

I’m going to issue (it’s a valid use, and ‘promulgate’ is so ugly) a challenge to all journalists: see if you can go a whole week without using that word. I am sure you will feel better for it, and your vocabulary will be distinctly healthier.

Anyone got an issue with that?

Two (million) wrongs make a right?

Since I wrote my last post, I have consulted two dictionaries – both of which say that the word ‘dissect’ can be pronounced as ‘dis-sect’ or as ‘die-sect’. What they mean, I suppose, is that both are used and therefore both are considered acceptable. But in my book that doesn’t mean that both are right. Mr Ellis’s argument seems to me to be incontrovertible.

Needless to say, I am disappointed (or should I say ‘die-sappointed’?).

But no doubt the modernists will tell me that, in language, there is no such thing as right and wrong . . .

Dissecting English pronunciation

Whenever I hear someone pronouncing the word ‘dissect’ to sound like ‘die-sect’, I remember Mr Ellis. He was my first biology teacher. He had crinkly grey hair, small round spectacles and a fastidious manner. As he demonstrated the use of a scalpel for the first time, he said:

“Now remember, boys, I am about to dis-sect this earthworm. Not die-sect. There are two esses, because the prefix is ‘dis’, added to the Latin root ‘sect’ and the word means ‘to cut apart’. On the other hand, you bisect an angle (pronouncing it ‘buy’) because the prefix is ‘bi’, meaning two – as in bicycle – and therefore the word means ‘to cut in two’. And there is only one ‘s’. So: never let me hear a boy talking of ‘die-secting’. Understood?”

Though there is much that Mr Ellis taught me that I have long since forgotten, that lesson stuck. My school,as it happens, has a medical foundation and has turned out many doctors over the years (I nearly became one myself). Yet I constantly hear intelligent people, including eminent surgeons, pronouncing the word ‘die-sect’. Perhaps they never had the advantage of studying under Mr Ellis. But I bet they wouldn’t say ‘die-sappear’ or ‘die-satisfied’.

My Ellis, incidentally, could be bitingly sarcastic. On our first lesson with a microscope, we studied samples of pond-water. I was excited when I found what I was sure was a one-celled organism. I stared down the eyepiece at it, and was convinced I saw it move.

Mr Ellis loomed up behind me. “What are you looking at, boy?” he said.

“I’m pretty sure it’s an amoeba, sir,” I replied.

Mr Ellis peered into the microscope, then straightened and addressed the whole class. “First rule of microscopy: make sure you know what you are looking at!” he said. “This boy has just spent twenty minutes contemplating an inanimate piece of sludge.”

Sixty years on, I still squirm . . .