It’s All Just Words
Pressing The Nib
I’m bored of writing about illness so let’s discuss more interesting subjects.
Did the above sentence bother you? The ‘of’ instead of ‘with’? I notice the Youngs are using it. Does it matter? The flickering intricacies of the English language would test the patience of a poet. We learn to write in one style and are shocked when we discover another.
So it is with delight that I’ve realised my great friend Evrim sends emails to me written in Edwardian English. His touch is so light that at first I didn’t notice. He writes, entirely unconsciously, ‘Tell me of Barcelona. I am afraid to visit, lest the changes prove too heartbreaking.’
I think we should all speak like this; the Edwardians were succinct and stylish and to the point. ‘I shall draw myself a bath, the better to exude last night’s intake of champagne.’ ‘Today I shall be keeping an open bed.’ We could all be characters from Mike Leigh’s ‘Topsy Turvey’. It would make the world a gentler, more thoughtful place.
Of course, British coarseness can also be a delight. Some of my readers feel compelled to email me in a sort of ‘Bridgerton’ patois, especially the Canadians, who imagine I am seated at my desk dressed as Charles Dickens. So when fans started posting kind remarks about a recent photograph – one suggested I looked ‘ready to press the nib to a fresh page,’ a British chap wrote, ‘Blimey, you look good for 68. I’m 53 and look like a fucking potato.’
To the point.
I feel I must always respect the power of words because I feel a family connection to Fowler’s English (1906). His tirades against bad habits in English stay with me now.
The word ‘Bloody’, technically a swear word because it distantly references the blood of Christ, is one of the most heavily used intensifiers in English, but its power has been eroded. Now a mild expression of surprise; ‘Bloody Hell!’ it is a substitute for ‘very’. There’s a theory that it’s a contraction of ‘By Our Lady’, a phrase which was popular with Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift.
By why did it have the power to shock, right up until the 1960s? A ‘blood’ was a young rake, out to raise hell. There was certainly a link to religion. Also, it might have become associated with the idea of menstruation. But most likely the population simply needed to create its own vulgarisms. Crikey and Blimey (both traceable to religious blasphemies) have vanished in my lifetime, just as Britain has become a secular nation. The once familiar cry of ‘Oh Gawd Blimey’ (‘God blind me’) is no longer heard.
Anyway, ‘Bloody’ is now dying out. In 1994, it was the most commonly spoken swear word, accounting for around 650 of every million words spoken in the UK – 0.064 per cent. In second place was ‘fuck’, at more than 550 per million, with ‘shit’ the third most rife, at around 150 per million.
‘Fuck’, previously confined to use as a verb, blossomed in the 1990s and became universal, largely because it had been popularised by America in music videos and films, where imaginative new usage developed.
Will ‘bloody’ go the way of ‘bugger’? Most likely, as the rollout of a universal language culled from TV and music continues its inexorable sweep. A pity; such words feel positively quaint and enjoy great usage in the Fowler household.
Husband Pete has a clear-eyed and rather contemptuous attitude when it comes to Britain’s pompous opinion of itself, and I find it quite hard to disagree with him. A class-bound, irrelevant island that failed, from Suez to Brexit, to find its place in the postwar world, its people are generous and decent, its governments unscrupulous and incompetent. When we look back, we may find that our two most important postwar prime ministers were, like it or not, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher. There would have to be a competition for the worst but Cameron and Bozo would, I suppose, be the front-runners.
Our Foreign Office has a history of delay and reversal. It has a shameful record in sending back Afghan refugees and is now suddenly required to reverse this policy, which hardly bodes well for those seeking asylum.
The war for Afghanistan has only just begun. The players are not yet all in place but they’re certain not to include the UK. It may soon prove that the West itself is shut out. China, Russia and India are vying for Taliban favours. China already owns swathes of land it hasn’t been able to strip-mine for precious minerals – an estimated £1 trillion lies beneath the rock. As usual, it all comes down to money.
Here in the UK MPs returned from summer recess to find Kabul fallen and a Foreign Secretary on holiday. Many were devastated by the details that were revealed about the coup. One listens to others speaking about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘special relationships’ and has to bite back bitter laughter. When it comes to trade, the ‘special relationship’ with the US is long dead and the only other route – to Europe – is a bridge that was burned by Brexit.
We now need to accept our new lowly position in the world. In other words, we’re fucked.