Minding Our Language

Reading & Writing


Me, I’m the master of the split infinitive, can’t spell ‘receive’ and still sometimes get confused about when to put full stops inside brackets, but other than that, my editor doesn’t have to waste much biro ink on me. Or should that be Biro ink? However, while I’m as exercised as anyone by signs like ‘Potato’s £1’ I try to remember that the English language is in a constant state of flux, and if it wasn’t it would be a dead language, so I’ll accept ‘train station’ for ‘railway station’ and even ‘bored of’ instead of ‘bored with’. Lately however, all kinds of grammatical peculiarities have been slipping into newspapers, and all I can think is that some writers don’t understand the fundamentals of grammar at all.

Of course there are other writers who are erudite enough to have a little fun with language; how else can I explain Guardian writer Marina Hyde’s attempts to get ‘vagocracy’ into a headline? And surely that suggests the root word would be ‘vagona’?

This week I went to see Patrick Barlow’s ridiculous but rather funny ‘Ben Hur’ at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, and one of the running gags in it is the overuse and repetition of verbs and adjectives in actors’ speech – the sort of thing you’d get in an amateur production where the dialogue has been over-amended. It’s a very English joke, and not to everyone’s taste, but I love the peculiarities of English. There’s an exchange in Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ which (from memory) runs something like:

Lady Guest: Isn’t it funny that your husband and maid should both suffer accidents on the same day?

Hostess: Yes, if that sort of thing amuses you.

The clue here being the double-use of the word ‘funny’ coupled with the hostess’s dislike of her guest – but if you have to explain such things they lose their power. I love understated English expressions, from ‘helping the police with their enquiries” (ie arrested) to ‘sweating’ onions, to the use of ‘exercised’ meaning angered by. Dickens’ works are packed with lovely sidelong glances at language, and there’s a terrific book (back via Print On Demand) called ‘The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dicken’s Imagination’ by John Carey that anyone interesting in writing really should read.

Perhaps few of us are so analytical to see how we play with words, but certain stylistic tics and tropes emerge from writers. My pal Porl in Leeds uses classically Northern language. When I pointed out that regular reader Snowy was making Bryant & May Christmas cards, he sent a picture of his own Bryant & May bookmark with the caption; ‘Coming next, the Bryant & May wrought-iron silhouette trivet’. Northern phrasing often relies on unappropriate pairings. When Victoria Wood wrote about attracting someone’s attention in a canteen she wrote, ‘I tapped her on the cleavage with a pastry fork’. The line is funny because she sees fit to describe the type of fork in use.

Interesting writing is what ultimately decides whether a book stays on my shelves. Very few flatly written novels remain, no matter how ingenious their plots are. In this sense the ultimate enemy should be Dan Brown, whose prose is simply a series of simple bolted-together words used to describe an action at its most basic level. But this is an entirely legitimate tool in the arsenal, and requires talent to use correctly (and Mr Brown is certainly clever enough to have made more money that any of us). The moral? It all starts with the language.

The T-shirt, by the way, says ‘Talk Proper’ on the back.

21 comments on “Minding Our Language”

  1. Matt says:

    I love BLIMEY! always have and still use it, much to amusement of those around me. I always get a few laughs when is use the term.

    Something I really do not like is the term ‘Bring’ to mean take as well as collect. (“we will bing it to granny when we visit her” instead of “we will take it to granny when we visit her”)

  2. Vincent C says:

    I still periodically, and without affectation, involuntarily express surprise with a cor blimey.

  3. Vincent C says:

    P.S. Frequently followed with an ‘ang about!

  4. Dave Skinner says:

    RE: Blimey; I try to limit my use of local (Nottingham) dialect, but the occasional “Bleddy ‘ell” gets though.

  5. Ian Mason says:

    @Vincent C.

    > P.S. Frequently followed with an ‘ang about!

    Followed by: “‘ere Love, come an’ ‘ave a butcher’s at this”.

    The whole thing sounds like the start of a conversation from our house. I’m originally from Brighton, well Hove actually, but I’ve lived in London so long that I now sound like what my mother used to describe as a Gor-Blimey Londoner. I blame ‘er indoors, who hails from Grin-Itch.

  6. Ian Mason says:


    > The T-shirt, by the way, says ‘Talk Proper’ on the back.

    If you were in Staffordshire it would have to say “Tow Crate”.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Things change and language changes with it. The difference between “fewer” and “less” is a battle already lost and I fear that “tired of” and “bored with” are going the same way. The on-line media have contributed greatly to this and the few younger people who try to raise the bar are having a hard time. Hrumph, hrumph.

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    I seem to remember a 1960’s comic strip character called Rreally Ffouls who used to shout ‘Stap Me!’

    ‘Blimey’ is a shortening of ‘God blind me!’, designed to be spoken in polite company so as not to use God as a swear word. Hence the older version ‘Gor (or Cor) blimey!’.

    Being a northerner I’ve never understood the description of ‘Cor blimey trousers’ as sung in ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’.

  9. keith page says:

    Why does everyone use the transatlantic ‘get’ in restaurants etc rather than ‘have’? Also I heard someone a while ago who thought it appropriate to address a shop assistant with ‘Thanks, fella’. Maybe a sign of the language evolving into downright rudeness.And don’t start me on upward inflections at the end of every statement or indeed a heavy reliance on ‘like’ when the store of vocabulary runs low.

  10. snowy says:

    I have never worked in a restaurant, but if I ever did and somebody were to ask me if they could ‘get’ something; I wouldn’t know quite what to say.

    But I have a few ideas:

    “Is this your first time in a restaurant….. without plastic trays?”

    “No, I have to bring you, your food. It’s my job.”

    “See those flappy doors? That’s the kitchen. You could go and ask the Chef; but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

  11. chris hughes says:

    Oh, Helen, ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ – I keep shouting ‘fewer’ at the radio and TV but sadly, they take no notice….And the one which makes me spit too these days is that somehow every sentence begins ‘So..’ In my south London home in the 50’s it was forbidden to say ‘Blimey’ because you were asking God to blind you. I could go on and on….and probably will in my head now!

  12. Helen Martin says:

    I’m beginning to think that a lack of clarity in our own enunciation combined with a build up of fury against media ignoramuses is what gets old people a bad reputation in seniors’ homes.

  13. chris hughes says:

    Well, I’ll drink to being an old person with a bad reputation:)!

  14. Helen Martin says:

    I was just reading some comments about houses with too many books (there is no such thing of course until you have to move them) and someone complained about realise spelled with an s instead of z. I just had to point out that there are alternate spellings for a number of words, realise being one of them, and directing him to this blog since he also cited Ye Olde as typical of English spelling.

  15. Anne Fernie says:

    While we are on the subject – does anyone know whether the pronunciation of ‘suit’ as ‘soot’ is an Americanism (albeit a very old one). Some people do still say ‘syoot’ (including me) but I have been chortled at up here in the North. This has bugged me for quite some time.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    The more often you repeat a word the harder it is to hear it properly. I’ve tried saying suit both ways and decided that I am more likely to say ‘soot’ than not, but I do sometimes put the extra sound in. Don’t ask me the source.

  17. agatha hamilton says:

    For some arcane reason, Anne, I think it used to be thought non-U to pronounce ‘suit’ as ‘syoot’ if it was something a woman wore – it had to be ‘soot’. But if were talking about whether something actually suited you, it was pronounced ‘syoot’. When I think about it, it all seems slightly mad now, but was just something that you absorbed and never did think about. We’ll be into ‘looking glass’ for ‘mirror’ and ‘writing paper’ not ‘notepaper’, before we know where we are, if we (I) continue on these lines, though.
    I say ‘blimey’ and ‘crikey’ all the time. Particularly as am in constant state of surprise at things.
    Love the idea of the Bryant and May trivet. Surely room here for many a commemorative gewgaw (pronounced with hard G).
    Also would put ‘Our Mutual Friend’ above ‘Great Expectations’.

  18. agatha hamilton says:

    Don’t know why I specified as woman’s suit. It went for men’s too.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Of course a hard G but could it be a geegaw? I’ve heard that. I’m remembering a linguistics prof who tried to prove that we don’t actually hear the pronunciation variants that are most common in our society. The fact that we couldn’t hear a difference was proof of her point. (Still muttering soot and syoot and assuming we’re not referring to that black stuff up the chimney and let’s not get into ‘chimminey’ and ‘chimbley’)

  20. snowy says:

    You will all drive yourselves insane trying to fathom English pronunciation! 🙂

    It is a hodge-podge of: *deep breath* Celtic, Norse, Saxon, Norman French, Breton, Latin and a few others that I forget. Now throw in words ‘borrowed’ from Urdu, Hindi, Zulu, Arabic and dozens more from areas that were colonised..

    If that doesn’t make it messy enough, stir in hundreds of local dialects. [If you have sharp ears, you only have to travel about 30 miles before you spot an accent shift.]

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Coming from an area where accents are localised to a thousand mile area it’s interesting to learn about a place where 30 miles might limit an accent. We have so many immigrants that the variety of national accents gives us diversity and we’ll pretend that generational ones don’t exist. (Will they turn into seniors still saying y’know and such?) Our linguists claim they can tell where we were born and who our parents are but it takes a lot of fine tuning to the ear.

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