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Particular, not pedantic

Cascading linguistic standards compromise the message and agitate the nerves.

Recently in the Irish Times (IT), Jennifer O’Connell wrote a column ‘Ten phrases we Irish could live without’ and the piece was as throwaway as the putrid prose she was targeting. She should look closer to home: leaf through that newspaper’s Saturday magazine and entertainment supplement – they are loaded with the very phrases she is lamenting and her own homey, thirty-something-year-old-next-door column certainly evokes ten ‘topics’ we could live without.

Her shoulder-shrugging on language bespeaks a growing indifference on our Kennelly with his biographer, Sandrine Brissett behalf to what I’d like to call ‘dumbspeak’.

Sadly, it’s splattered everywhere and tossed-off articles – ‘listicles’ to purveyors of dumbspeak – like the one in the IT, defeat their very purpose, as they give the doltish deviations a studied ironic legitimacy. Printing those words in your pages in a half-baked attempt to purloin the Zeitgeist, without any structured argument against them to give them a good kicking, tends to validate them. Why bother?

It all brings on what Winston Churchill almost said: it is the sort of English up with which we should not put.

The mindlessness is too pervasive for flippancy. Here is a small snippet of a con- versation I could not fail to hear in a Dublin café recently.

“When we came here last year, the food really sucked and the service was really random, but it seems to have changed and these toasted sandwiches are really awesome, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely. It’s like, so friggin’ fresh… it’s beyond real”.

“Oh, and Tom just pinged me to say he got those tickets for the weekend. I’m so, like, happy now I could almost cry”.

“Tom is like, the best ever”.

“Totally”.

“Totes”.

We all experience it. It made me want to bite chunks out of the ceramic sugar bowl in front of me. Meat being scraped from bone.

The sheer inanity of the chatter summoned to mind a countervailing recollection that 18th-century coffee houses were actually hotbeds of discourse and debate; I remembered Samuel Johnson’s idea of language being the dress of human thought, and reflected on how mangily the minds sat next to me were kitted out. With my back to them, I gamely tried to read my newspaper, but Troilus and Cressida had those oating, gaseous, vowel-stretching baritones that are beyond blocking.

What struck me when I did look around was the age of the two awestruck ciabatta munchers: these people were not teenagers, who are, somewhat understandably, more susceptible to nouvelles influences. No, they were roughly the same age as me, in their mid-thirties, but their lexicon was driven by words that were downright silly, and ubiquitous underarching verbal crutches such as “like”, “fucking” and “whoa”.

I finished my coffee and left, for I could suffer it no more.

You may say, so what?

I believe in good English. However, I’m not a grammar fascist, a pedant or a prissy self-appointed ‘protector of the language’. But I was taken aback at the verbal incontinence dissipating through the hip-grim café and the creeping trend of idiot words and sayings that lay siege to English like a corrosive virus.

We hear it on TV and radio. Why do our six-o’-clock newsreaders revel so in their inanities of “thanks indeed”, “bye for now” and “take care!”?

Worse even are the empty phrases prattling forth from the mouths of our pol- iticians who scrape at particular words in the hope of purchasing gravitas or perhaps time (“hand, act or part”, “we are where we are”, “moving forward”, “vis-à-vis”, “in the final analysis”, “at this juncture” “at this moment in time”). Or revel in cliché “all politics is local”, “it’s not rocket science”.

Some of the worst language comes from the most pusillanimous – estate agents. Making property ‘prestigious’ or ‘exclusive’ leaves out what the property is, as opposed to how the upwardly mobile see it. The language itself creates a value based not on substance.

Then there is the trend for using the word “so” to start a sentence, nonsensically.

“So tell me about last night”.

“So, we went out at nine…”

“Chillax”, “epic”, “guys” “folks”, “no problem”, “no worries”: they all tend to grate.

I realise that English evolves, new forms of communication bring substantial new concepts (tweet, online etc). Part of my concern may be attributable to a concern that America – the home of new technology – and Americanisation bring not just modernisation but simplification of necessary complexity, and homogenisation (alternate becomes indistinguishable from alternative, “at present” from “presently” and never say “niggardly”). Ideally language should be adaptable to taking on the tint of any country.

“Words will not stay still”, TS Eliot noted, and last year the Oxford English Dictionary brought us “selfie”, “twerk” – and the compromised use of “literally”. Yet we do not have to accept new words without question or judgment or taste.

Walt Whitman wrote: “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or the dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity…” – therefore our language is only as good as ourselves; it reflects where we are as a society. Orwell also said that good English should be like a windowpane, so in a similar context, our spoken words can be held up as a mirror to our culture.

Language and knowledge are interdependent. Good, working language presupposes and depends on a real knowledge of things. If ignorance is widespread, then so too will be language. If a cheeseburger can be awesome where does that leave the Taj Mahal?

A useful response to people using dumbspeak is the word “huh?” – which, apart from serving its purpose of halting them, to explain their verbicides, just happens to be the universal word that the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics found could be understood across all cultures and countries. Neat, huh?

If English grows with the aid of poetic spirit all the better (“Grant me some wild expressions”, said George Farquhar, “or I shall burst!”).

High on my list are “another pint?” and a perfect “sound of sense” word: shemozzle. I’m also fond of this suggestion of Henry James: “summer afternoon – to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language”, and prosai- cally but just as sincerely Dorothy Parker’s supposed suggestion: “check enclosed”.

They show that choice, clear images can still bring blood rushing.

NJ McGarrigle