Just happened to notice this t’other day. We tend to take it as read that the world speaks English; it takes something like Twitter to show, with clarity, simplicity and immediate impact, that it ain’t necessarily so…
Can’t recall what I was googling, but somehow I found myself at a glossary of terms which will prove invaluable to my many readers who have expressed an interest in gaining entry to the upper echelons of society. I pass it on as a public service:
Always — most “correct” pronunciations are unguessable from the spelling, so the uninitiated will give themselves away. Thus it is with “always”, as Kingsley Amis explains in The King’s English: “AWLwhizz is the thing to say if you can manage it. I never really can.”
Beaulieu — home to Lord and Lady Montagu, and pronounced (naturally) “Byoo–lee”. Any attempt to speak a name of French origin in a French manner betrays one as an outsider who strives to seem sophisticated.
Belvoir — as per the previous rule, this castle is pronounced “beaver”. Other rural retreats for the wellbred include those pronounced “badger” and “bugger”.
Cecil — pronounced Sissle.
Cholmondeley — pronounced “Chumley”. Best said while affecting a weary aristocratic ennui that is so overpowering one simply can’t be bothered to enunciate all the syllables of a long word.
clothes — Kingsley Amis: “I admit that I should rather like to be able to say close but from fear of being misunderstood do not dare.”
forehead — rhymes with “horrid”.
golf — in the good old days, was always pronounced “goff”.
— Greek for “the plebs”. To say “the hoi polloi”, which means “the the plebs”, instantly identifies you as a pleb.
how d’you do — what to say when you meet the Queen. Do not follow the example of Kate Middleton’s mother, who said “Pleased to meet you”. Of course you are pleased to meet the Queen. She is the Queen.
infra dig — Latin, short for infra dignitatem, “beneath one’s dignity” or demeaning, as it would be to say “settee”.
jolly — means “very”, as in Boris Johnson’s memory of smoking cannabis: “It was jolly nice.” (If one must say “very”, one pronounces it “vair”.)
loo — or perhaps “lavatory”, but never “toilet” or “WC” or “bathroom”.
Magdalen College, Oxford — pronounced “maudlin”.
Magdalene College, Cambridge — also pronounced “maudlin”, in order to fuel the oik’s superstitious awe of the homogeneous “Oxbridge” class conspiracy.
marvellous — quite good. Only two syllables: “marvlous”.
napkin — not “serviette”, unless you are literally in France.
non–U — often attributed to Nancy Mitford, the terms “U” (upperclass) and “non–U” were first coined by the British linguist Alan Ross in his 1954 paper “Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English”. As well as noting the correct ways to address knights and baronets, and matters of pronunciation and vocabulary, it featured useful social observations: “When drunk, gentlemen often become amorous or maudlin or vomit in public, but they never become truculent.”
orf — the right way to say “off”.
Orff — German composer most famous for his 1970s Old Spice adverts.
posh — the Non–U way to say “smart”.
rarely — means “really”.
Still stuck for that perfect Christmas present?
No, don’t thank me. Just have a great Christmas! Back in the New Year.
Over the last week I’ve been reading a book I received as a birthday present – a Penguin Civic Classics collection of great American political speeches. It’s full of stirring stuff, as you might imagine, but the one thing that strikes you straightaway is the complexity, the sophistication of the language and construction, compared with what passes as political discourse today.
Take this, from Patrick Henry’s famous Give me liberty or give me death! speech, delivered on 23 March 1775:
“If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight!”
I doubt you’d see such a gathering of subordinate clauses in any contemporary political oration. And if you thought that was a long sentence, how about this one, from Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, on 4 March 4 1801:
“Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow citizens, resulting not from birth but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter; with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and prosperous people?”
Compare, just for example, this chunk of Trump, taken from a speech delivered on 3 November 2016:
“The FBI is investigating how Hillary Clinton put the office of Secretary of State up for sale in violation of federal law. The investigation is described as QUOTE “a very high priority.” The investigation is far-reaching and has been going on for more than a year. It was reported that an “avalanche” of information is coming in.The FBI agents say their investigation is likely to yield an indictment.”
68 words; five sentences. Are we becoming (have we become?) a civilisation unable to cope with anything much beyond the simplest of declarative sentences? Or is it more to do with a cultural shift – a genuine democratisation, which means politicians must speak to all, not just their highly educated peers?
Whatever the reasons, KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) seems to have become the de facto standard for communication in the internet age.
Went to see the consultant last week. Finally got to see him 20 minutes or so after the appointment time. He apologised for the delay, before launching into an extended – and detailed – account of the inefficiencies which surround him. “The level of incompetence is astonishing. I’m going to use what they call ‘my kit’ for your procedure, because we have no disposable ones. They have run out. No-one saw them running out and ordered new ones.
When they introduced disposables, they wanted to get rid of my kit, but I insisted on keeping it. Now everyone uses it all the time, because as often as not it’s the only one we have. Sheer incompetence…” And more of the same. Much more.
I did think it quite ironic that my five minute procedure ended up taking 20 minutes or so because of the amount of time spent telling me how incompetent and inefficient everything round here was…
An entertaining recent thread on those words whose spelling trips you up – or at least gives you pause – every time kicked off with queue (‘all those u’s and e’s’), proceeding by way of the likes of
questionnaire (‘one ‘n’ or two?)
definately (or is it ‘definitely’?)
permanent vs permenant
to ‘separate’ – which I have to confess I also spent years correcting from ‘seperate’.
Star of the thread, though, was an entry from someone who said she’d never been able to get a handle on ‘necessary’, until a tutor took her to one side and suggested that
“Nearly Every Clown Eats Special Sausages At Rehearsals, Y? Because it’s necessary”
I do love a good nickname. I’ve posted already about Man City’s Kizito Musampa, universally known as Chris.
One of my favourite forums recently hosted a dedicated thread which threw up a few crackers:
“I have a friend whose surname is Lamb, known to all as Legga.”
“I had a couple of uncles with nicknames; Uncle George was The Genie as he’d magically appear when a bottle was opened, and Uncle Neil was The Exorcist because when he left our house there were no spirits left.”
And, my favourite:
“We met the parents of one of our colleagues when they came down to visit. They were confused as to why everyone was calling their son “Tumble”
…… the surname was Dwyer”
On hearing that last night’s moon was ‘the biggest for 70 years’, I naturally went out to take a look, and was sore aggrieved to discover that as far as I could see, it was the same size as always. What a let down.
I was, though, delighted to discover the moon’s phase:
‘Waxing Gibbous’ – superb! Sounds like a villain in a Holmes mystery.
(Being a word chap, I naturally went to find out what it all meant, and it turns out that ‘waxing’ simply means getting larger (as in ‘waxing and waning’), while ‘gibbous’ means “having the illuminated part greater than a semicircle and less than a circle”, though by extension, ‘gibbous’ eyes are ‘convex or protuberant’.)
So, lunarily disappointing, vocabularily rewarding.
Like most borderline sentient humans, I anticipate a day fraught with foreboding. The prospect of President Trump is so nightmarish that it feels like it must be a nightmare. And yet I’m awake. And, as Michael Portillo said on This Week last week, ‘the momentum would appear to be with Trump, and at this stage in the game….’
In truth, I’ve feared for this election for months, even when Trump seemed dead & buried. And for one reason above all. Four words.
Make America Great Again.
The moment I read those words, I thought uh-oh.
The power of a few words. Underestimate it at your peril.
Obama’s team understood this. Yes We Can. Comes straight to my mind, unbidden, from eight years ago. Brexit understood it. Taking Back Control was good; Independence Day even better. And what did Remainers have? Nada? And we know where that got us…
And where’s Hillary Clinton’s? How could such a consummate politician approach an election without a hook? A catch-phrase, short and punchy, that instantly resonates with everyone who hears it, that catalyses and galvanises her support, that makes every ally – and, crucially, every possible ally – respond instantly with: ‘That’s right! That’s what I’ve always said!’
And yet she has. She has entered the polling booth word-naked. Let’s hope we don’t all end up paying the price.