Why do we say ‘near miss’ when we really mean ‘near collision’? It’s not a euphemism, like ‘mental health’ for ‘mental illness’ or ‘passed away’ for ‘died’. It’s a misnomer. My guess is that the expression has evolved from comparable phrases like ‘a near thing’ and ‘a close shave’. But it makes about as much sense as ‘same difference’. So I lay blame for our confusion at the feet of that terrible twosome of language, Miss Nomers and Miss Giving.
Some people mourn the loss of the word ‘gay’ to mean ‘happy,’ as it is now used almost exclusively as a synonym for ‘homosexual,’ to the point where phrases such as ‘a gay romp’ or ‘with gay abandon’ tend to prompt knowing smiles rather than a mere expression of joy. What can complainants do about this usage change? Nothing. That’s language evolution. As the Borg would say: ‘You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.’
In the process of linguistic development, we gain and we lose. Sometimes it’s simple misunderstanding, as in the phrase ‘it’s a doggy-dog world,’ which is obviously a mishearing of ‘it’s a dog-eat-dog world’. Sometimes it’s a matter of seeming efficiency, such as backforming verbs from nouns (e.g. ‘to liaise,’ ‘to intuit’). And sometimes a new term is coined out of necessity but the process of change seems to defy logic. One such word is ‘homophobia’. Why did we coin it? Because until someone did, we lacked a useful term for anti-homosexual or homosexual-phobic behaviour. But here’s the linguistic dilemma: ‘homo’ as it occurs in the word ‘homosexual’ is of Greek derivation, referring to the condition of sameness (not ‘homo’ from the Latin derivation, meaning ‘man’). The word ‘homosexual’ means ‘attracted to the same sex’. So if we were to apply strict language logic, the newly coined word ought to be ‘heterophobia,’ meaning ‘fear of the different’. Logical, Mr Spock, but not helpful. In popular parlance, we seldom use ‘hetero’ in any context other than sexual (the word ‘heterogeneous’ being less common, while other words with a ‘hetero’ prefix are restricted to scientific or anthropological uses). So we have the neologism ‘homophobia’: illogical as derivation but necessary, and understandable.
Less understandable is the noun ‘escapee’. Why do we use it instead of the more logical ‘escaper’? A’ nominee’ has his or her name put forward by others. A ‘legatee’ receives a legacy from others. A ‘refugee’ is granted refuge by others. A ‘detainee’ is detained by others. But an escapee hasn’t had the cell door opened by others. He or she is an active agent in the process. Miss Nomer, this one’s yours.
There’s a more perverted [used advisedly] mis-usage abroad, the word ‘paedophile’ (US: pedophile). This erstwhile harmless word is nowadays used exclusively for a child abuser. The word once meant a person fond of children (as a ‘bibliophile’ is fond of books) in the days when a molester of minors was known as a ‘paederast’ (pederast). Unfortunately for language—and even more unfortunately for abuse victims—in the 1970s a group of pederasts appropriated the innocent word and applied a lewd usage, so it came to mean ‘lover of children’. Perhaps this was an attempt to lend legitimacy to the practice or to soften the image of its practitioners. Fail. This word has become our default expression for ‘child molester’. Some people might even confuse it with the profession of ‘paediatrician,’ which could have unforeseen consequences. There’s a loss to our language but we can’t do anything about it.
Gender and sex: now this one we can do something about. I don’t intend to waste my breath railing against so-called political correctness but I do challenge listeners if they flinch when someone correctly uses the word ‘sex’ to mean a biological man or woman. ‘Gender’ ought to be used adjectivally, not so much referring to social behaviours or attitudes as to aspects of linguistic ownership. Gender is male and female. Sex is men and women. How did this happen? Perhaps the squeamishness arose in the USA, land of the pilgrim fathers, amid lingering puritan nervousness about using the ‘s’ word. Whatever the cause, ‘gender’ isn’t the same as ‘sex’. To say that women have been campaigning more than a century for gender equality sounds like either a mealy-mouthed cop-out or a quibble about separate toilets. Surely the long struggle is a matter of sexual equality, and of civil rights. Gender is his and hers; sex is Romeo and Juliet. Let’s get that right.
‘The plane will be taking off momentarily,’ said a flight attendant on an American airliner,
causing a British passenger to wonder what was wrong with the engines. This is an absurd and probably apocryphal tale but it illustrates a point. In the UK and its commonwealth of former British colonies, such as Australia, Canada, South Africa, India and New Zealand, ‘momentarily’ means ‘for a moment,’ while ‘presently’ means ‘in a moment’. By contrast, in the USA both uses are acceptable and may be used interchangeably, like ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative’. And speaking of America: one of its most disappointing presidents was Warren G. Harding. Among other blunders, that country’s twenty-ninth president used the word ‘normalcy’ in a speech in 1921, and was roundly criticised by editorials on both sides of the Atlantic. But the man wasn’t wrong, in that matter anyway. ‘Normalcy’ had been in circulation since at least the 1850s.
So, dear Miss Giving, was each of the above examples a missed nomer? If I avoid a near miss, does that mean I’ve hit the target? If I’m an escapee from criticism, does it mean an invisible angel has rescued me? If I watch a program called Gender in the City might I expect to near nothing racier than discussions about shared bath towels and possessive pronouns?
Time to sign off worrying. As Led Zep sang, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
We know it when we see it. People use slang all the time in conversation and, by extension, in less formal e-mails. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter couldn’t survive without it, and still keep their light and breezy tone. Problems arise only in formal writing, and in that junction where e-mail crosses over to business writing. Ok? Nuff said? Kind of.
In more formal writing we use many words that were once considered slang, including abbreviations. Most have become acceptable in common discourse: words like ‘crunch,’ ‘factory,’ ‘phone,’ ‘flu’ and ‘mob’. Then there are more contemporary expressions used by youth and counterculture groups. These are obviously non-standard English and we wouldn’t use them in formal writing, unless ironically: terms such as ‘yada-yada,’ ‘chillax,’ or ‘fully sick’.
But there is a third group: transitional words and phrases that were once exclusively slang but have almost—though not quite—reached a point of assimilation. Some readers will have no objection to them; other readers may consider using such words to be a sign of the decline and fall of civilisation; words like ‘hassle,’ ‘mojo,’ ‘wannabe’ and ‘deadset’. Please pass the smelling salts.
Slang inhabits the informal language register, which includes social networks. The problem with written slang nowadays, even for entertainment and infotainment, is the trans-cultural nature of global communications. What may be considered casual and friendly banter in one country can amount to an insulting level of informality in another. And yet too formal an approach can strike some readers as cold and unfriendly. Damned if you goddamn and damned if you don’t.
But is slang a good thing or bad, right or wrong, hit or miss?
Let’s consider why we have slang. The great Eric Partridge believed that we use it for a range of reasons: to play, to create humour, to create novelty, to suggest differentiation, to flout convention, to encourage brevity, to dispel solemnity or to establish a closer relationship with one’s audience or readership. Slang can ease awkwardness in conversation. It can establish intimacy. It can confer membership of a club or group, or it can exclude someone else from membership. Each of these is not only a valid expression of language but a universal tendency. Slang is hard-wired in us.
American poet Carl Sandburg said that slang is ‘language with its sleeves rolled up’. Even the word itself is slang, a shorthand version of ‘short language’. We need it as an essential part of human communication. Societies across the world need an informal and non-standard vocabulary: an argot, a private jargon. Many families have their own slang, as do most clubs and communities of interest. Slang can be fun, romantic, exciting, even threatening. Small talk and social exchange are often characterised by slang. Rather than engage in stilted dialogue that would make even Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope frown, we play with language daily, sharing jokes and songs that rely on slang. The East End of London has bequeathed one variety–rhyming slang–to countries of the former British Empire, which once held dominion over a quarter of the planet.
But here’s the problem: electronic communications. In this age of instant messaging we’ve all become self-publishers, each with our individual style guides. We have the world as our platform but it’s not a one-language world. Even though English is the most widely spoken language (a perennial second to Mandarin in the number of speakers), and remains the dominant, official or shared official language in more than fifty countries, it’s not a one-English world. Even well known sporting slang may become incomprehensible (and exclusive) banter. It can hit you for six or go right through to the keeper. Howzat?
So what do we do? Avoid all informality? Write in starchy style, with idiom-free and deracinated blandness? Or we can roll up our sleeves, as Sandburg suggests, and relax a little. Sure, if we’re engaged in academic writing, slang is an unwise choice. If we’re making an address to the UN assembly or writing immortal prose—increasingly hard to define that one—maybe slang isn’t the best option. But for most writing forums, slang has its uses, even if employed only for irony. My lasting concern with slang is its potential for misunderstanding across cultural divides. There are more Englishes with every passing decade, and this evolutionary process offers many an opportunity for miscommunication. To see some risible results, try running ‘fully sick’ or ‘dead set’ through Google Translate.
When we use words like ‘typo,’ ‘fridge’ and ‘flu,’ we’re employing former slang that still isn’t fully accepted in formal contexts of English. If we sling culture-specific slang, such as ‘raspberry’ (from cockney rhyming slang, short for ‘raspberry tart’ to rhyme with ‘fart’), ‘dingbat’ (from Australian rhyming slang, short for ‘dingo’ plus ‘[officer’s] batman’) or ‘grok’ (fictional slang from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land), we’re likely to confuse readers beyond our narrow cultural usage.
I’m not suggesting that we ‘chillax’ nor am I recommending we ‘max out’ our concerns. Mostly I’d just like to see increased self-awareness of our habits in formal writing. As for social media, I think we just should roll up our sleeves and fuhgeddaboudit. What, me worry?
‘Hate to sound alarmist, old sport, but isn’t that an iceberg off our port side?’
‘You’re right. And now the orchestra is playing.’
‘I say, chaps, we seem to be fresh out of lifeboats.’
‘But where did the berg come from? Wasn’t there a moment ago.’
‘One of the officers muttered something about a glacier melting.’
‘Couldn’t help overhearing you fellows. Do glaciers melt? They’re huge.’
‘Rather. About the size of an African republic. Couldn’t possibly just melt.’
‘Looks like we’re for it, then. Last drinks, anyone…?’
Such polite language, such sangfroid under pressure: that’s what we’ve always admired about the British. Just re-arrange a few deck chairs and turn on the wireless to hear about the next former colony erupting in volcano-earthquake-tsunami. Seems to be happening with increased frequency of late. Is this the end of days? Is there a fine old Rapture coming? Hope somebody does something. Those Americans seem capable enough. We’ll leave the cleaning up to them; they do such a good job. What say we head down to the club and have a brandy and soda?
Those days are gone. The USA can’t even afford the price of a wrench, let alone a plumber. Even that last global summit gave up in a melee of non-action. 2009 seems a long time ago. Denmark, wasn’t it? Or am I thinking of Eurovision? ‘Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, friendly old girl of a town…’ sang Danny Kaye, as Hans Christian Andersen. We could have done with some fairy-tale magic two years ago, instead of photo opportunities and protests. Shame about the Earth. That aptly named soothsayer, Nicholas Stern, reckons we’re on the brink. James Lovelock has already told us we’ve passed the point of no return. So much for overpopulation.
Then why all the pussyfooting soft-soaping language? Leaders of our industrialised nations sounded so calm throughout that summit. Two years on and not much has changed. Even when facing re-election, our respective prime ministers and presidents have sought to pacify, mollify and stupefy us with weaselling words. Reasonable progress. Measured response. But if ever a predicament called for an international shouting match, with plenty of oaths, this is it. In a Hollywood movie, there’d be more than orotund orations from Obama, or Ruddy roundabout rhetoric or Brownian bluff. In a movie the language would crackle with outrage. Fists would thump tables. Vote for my party. We can save the world. Instead, the press conferences have neither raged nor rung. Sure there’s been whining from low-lying nations like Tuvalu but have the Westminster-tradition heirs raged against the dying of the light? Oh, dear no, that could cost a few votes. Might take a hit in the opinion polls. Party whips and spinmeisters advise caution. Focus groups react unfavourably to talk of Armageddon. Such a buzz-kill, such party-pooping talk. Another helping of bread and circuses, anyone?
If the prognosticators are right, our disaster movie is entering its final reel. This epic needs punchy oratory. Where are Chuck Norris and Vin Diesel? We need action heroes who can kick ass. Where’s Bruce Willis when we need him to save the world? Where’s Arnold Schw…? Oh, yeah, doing some damage control of his own. Where’s… sorry, did someone say David Cameron?
Yes, the stiff-upper-body Eton lad has emerged as an unlikely green crusader: Mr Bean meets James Bond, in other words Johnny English. No shuffling the Titanic’s chairs for the prime minister nobody voted for. He’s out there calling for a fifty–repeat fifty–percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2025. Hey, dude, D-Cam is leading the pack. Winston would be proud. Hurrah for Blighty.
Meanwhile not a peep from the economically cringing USA, while a conservative political duopoly in Australia offers tweedledum versions of highly compromised carbon reduction. This is hardly fighting global warming on the beaches, or anywhere else. Why not light up the population? Why not scare the bejeesus out of us? If the imminent extinction of our species can’t animate the language of world leaders, what can? So young Cameron has put up his hand. He’s looking lonely though. Other leaders should be in full cry. Global catastrophe isn’t a matter for voting blocs. We’re all in the firing line, and some of us would appreciate a little urgency in the public discourse.
The movie version of Bruce Willis would go after the baddies on his own. Problem is, the bad guys are armed with air conditioners and brown coal. It’s us, trying to kill one another, in the best tradition of Catch-22. ‘Suppose everyone felt that way?’ wrote Joseph Heller. ‘Then I’d be a damned fool to think any different.’
But hey! Let’s dial down the speechifying. No need to panic voters. Those climate summit discussions were full and frank. We’re making steady progress. We have broad in-principle agreement and all parties remain optimistic for a positive outcome. In the fullness of time. At the appropriate juncture.
No need to shout. I mean, it’s not the end of the world.
Guinness is good for you—isn’t it? I confess to being a fan, even though what passes for the black brew outside Ireland is second-rate. And most Dubliners will tell you that the only place to drink their distinctive porter-style dry stout is right there, preferably not far from St James Gate, though anywhere in the region of Temple Bar will do just fine, thank you very much, and I don’t mind if I do. In my experience a pint of the black will taste good anywhere in Ireland: creamier and more full-bodied than the same-coloured version outside those shores. Once it crosses the sea it becomes a lesser being; probably it’s not even the same drink. Export versions are often inferior. Which brings me back to the famous slogan: is it true? Maybe. Each foaming beaker contains some antioxidants, so there’s probably a dollop of legitimacy. I’ve even heard the drink recommended for breastfeeding mothers—in moderation, to be sure. And so to matters of language. ‘Guinness Makes You Strong’ was an earlier advertising pitch but nothing has surpassed the alliterative power of ‘Guinness is Good for You,’ even though we know it’s advertising blarney and no one seriously puts that drink in the same health category as, say, quitting cigarettes. And yet slogans like the Guinness classic seem almost truthful compared to modern advertising.
How often are we bombarded with empty comparatives like ‘butter is better’? Better than what? Better than margarine? Better than Strychnine? Better than Valvoline? We’re also subjected to manipulative coinages like ‘lite,’ which has now entered the language as code for ‘less than’. I am pleased to see that our judgement is better than advertisers give us credit for: the word is seldom used without a hint of irony. Less amusing is ‘diet’. When used adjectivally this may be understood to mean ‘artificially sweetened’ but it’s one slippery little word, avoiding the clutches of health authority classification because its meaning is historical. We’re all on diets. We eat food and we imbibe beverages. That’s a diet. But when I diet (verb) or go on a diet (noun) I can mean anything from an Israeli Army diet to a Scarsdale, a Liver Cleansing, a Pritikin or a hundred other celebrity-endorsed fads.
Advertisers have been abusing our language for a long time. Here are some better known examples:
• ACME cleans whiter. Whiter than what? Other products, presumably. Or is this an attempt to reach the Platonic realm of ideal forms, where ultimate whiteness exists?
• For a smoother finish, use ACME. Smoother than what? Gravel rash? A cheese grater?
• ACME, cheaper by far. Meaning what? Who knows?
• ACME is the best. Okay. You’ve convinced me. I’ll take a dozen.
False comparatives and superlatives don’t just worry this writer and reader; they irritate me. Worst offender is the qualified absolute (e.g. more perfect, very unique). Come on, advertisers, aren’t you aware that an absolute isn’t negotiable. Something is either perfect or it’s less than perfect. Unless used ironically, the usage amounts to absurdity, like ‘quite pregnant’ or ‘more than complete’.
Commercialised language has reached unhealthy proportions. We know that butter is a product, not a brand — like aspirin and cola and the lower-case ‘i’— but increasingly we’re being asked to identify words with specific trademarks. The commonplace vacuum cleaner becomes small-h ‘hoover,’ the ballpoint pen is a ‘biro’ and the vacuum flask a small-l ‘thermos.’ At least we can fight back. We did it with ‘lite.’ Recently we have appropriated ‘Mc’ as a catch-affix for any mass-produced mediocre product (e.g. ‘McJobs,’ ‘McDegrees,’ and ‘McMansions’).
So there’s hope yet. Time to pack up my analysis-lite for another week and imbibe a well earned foaming black health drink.
Someone somewhere—perhaps in a Milanese fashion house or the offices of a Madison Avenue magazine—sets our standards of beauty. Like a dog show writ large, humanity is breed-ranked into categories of ‘too long,’ ‘too short’ or not enough of this or that. But advertisers would never be so crude as to say so.
Instead they favour euphemisms and soft-soap language to flatter our tender egos in the hope of making us buy things.
So, unless the advertiser wants to spruik a weight-loss program, a new diet or the latest exercise machine, there are no fat people in our society. Instead we have the ‘high and mighty’ or ‘man-sized’ gent. Women have ‘plus-size’ models to show off clothing for ‘the fuller figure.’ Likewise there are no short men, only economy sized. Nor do ugly men exist. We are ‘masculine’ or ‘rugged.’ And women deemed less than acceptable by the Milan or Manhattan standards are supposed to feel satisfied with having a ‘bubbly personality’ or being ‘serious-minded’.
As for baldness, that’s almost unmentionable, unless someone wants to sell a miracle hair-restorer or a whizz-bang follicle replacement technique. Instead we read about men with ‘thinning hair,’ making it sound like a slimming program, almost vigorously healthy. Or else men are described as having the Bruce Willis or Vin Diesel look. Oddly enough, we’re never described as having the Voldemort look.
And do we fall for this ruse? Often.
Euphemisms: they’re everywhere. From the politically correct and ridiculous ‘differently abled’ to the macabre ‘friendly fire.’
Advertisers: they’ve long known how to manipulate language. During the twentieth century men ceased to smell; instead they had ‘body odour.’ Women no longer had periods (itself a euphemism); instead they had ‘feminine hygiene.’
We don’t use the toilet; we ‘go the smallest room,’ we ‘powder our nose’ or ‘inspect the plumbing.’ Nature calls. Need to spend a penny. Hmm, excuse me, I need to use the euphemism.
‘Pornography’ is considered poor salesmanship, so we’re supposed to accord the X-rated industry a fig-leaf of respect and call their product ‘adult entertainment.’
Politicians are ‘economical with the truth,’ ‘not in full possession of the facts’ or else engaged in ‘full and frank discussion’ with their mortal enemies.
When armed vigilantes are on our side we call them ‘freedom fighters,’ until they turn on us. Then they become ‘terrorists’. Swap the white hat for the black. ‘Us’ becomes ‘them’.
People living in caravans or trailers reside in ‘mobile homes.’ Sounds almost luxurious, doesn’t it? And how clever of us not to have poor people anymore, just the ‘disadvantaged’ or the ‘marginalised.’ I wonder how a marketing firm would have handled Jesus Christ as a client. “Look, Jesus baby, this ‘poor’ stuff doesn’t sound cool. How about we say ‘the disadvantaged’ will always be with you…?”
Civilised nations don’t lock up their asylum seekers in jails; instead they ‘house’ such people in ‘detention centres’ – even though these hell-holes are run by the same company. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
So to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, let’s embrace the unmentionable by skirting around the ineffable in pursuit of the indefensible. Oscar was a fuller-figured gent. He’d understand the importance of not being earnest.