Language is a malleable old thing. Especially the English language, which ambles along picking up new words from almost anywhere and absorbing them into itself. ‘Shampoo’ and ‘Bungalow’ come from Hindi, ‘Marmalade’ is Portuguese, ‘Penguin’ is Welsh (how did that happen?). That firm favourite of the British dinner table, ‘Tomato ketchup’ is a combination of Nahuatl (Central American) for ‘Tomato’ and a Chinese dialect for ‘ketchup’. Once the word is absorbed, it’s difficult to think of it in its original form. Ex-US president George W Bush, admittedly a man not noted for his literacy, is claimed to have once said in an attempted verbal attack on our friends across the Channel ‘The trouble with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur’, oblivious to the faux pas, or ‘embarrassing act or remark in a social situation’ he had just inadvertently committed. Do the French have a word for ‘faux pas’? Oui, and thanks to them, we do too.
The bigger and better your vocabulary, the more able you are to get your ideas and impressions and views across. That’s not just using big words for the hell of it. Start talking like Stephen Fry having just eaten a very large dictionary when you are at your local pub and you may well be cruising for a bruising. Literally. Depending on your pub of choice of course. Maybe you should just change your pub.
But the reverse is also true. The fewer words at your disposal, the harder it becomes to get your message across, and the more frustrating it can become for all concerned. A receptionist was explaining something to me the other day and clearly lost the word ‘obligation’. Which then made it difficult to explain her point. So the conversation went on for longer and until I supplied the missing word no-one was quite sure what she was getting at.
And whether it’s a result of a failing education system, over reliance on technology or just being lazy, language is taking a serious pasting at the moment. One girl was heard the other day to say to her friend that she was ‘Going Croydon’. Now I’ve heard of ‘Going bananas’ and ‘Going ballistic’ but never ‘Going Croydon’. Then it became clear that she wasn’t ‘Going Croydon’ but ‘Going to Croydon’.
Texting and the internet have introduced a whole swathe of initialisations, corruptions et al to everyday language. ‘CU L8R – See you later’, ‘LOL – Laugh out loud’ just as a couple of examples. But I’ve had texts from people that have been so abbreviated that I’ve had absolutely no idea what they were saying. Which surely defeats the object of the exercise. But what actually is the object? Saving time? Occasionally that might be the case, but most of the time people are doing it while travelling on trains or buses or waiting for the same. More than enough time to write a fuller text. The daughter of a friend of mine can text accurately and more swiftly than her mother while holding the handset behind her back. I doubt she’s that much of an exception these days. So why not use that time to flourish a broad vocabulary?
In George Orwell’s classic book ‘1984’ the shadowy and brutal rulers of Airstrip One were systematically reducing the English language into Newspeak. Newspeak was language specifically designed so that concepts and even thoughts couldn’t be constructed that conflicted with the ruling philosophy. Everything was simplified. ‘Good, better, best’ were replaced by ‘Good, Plus-good, Doubleplus-good’. With only basic verbal building blocks, people couldn’t communicate anything the government didn’t want them to. No revolution, guaranteed.
Let’s not do to ourselves what Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ was trying to do to the poor subjects of his TV-controlled police state.
Me, I shall be going to Croydon. I may see you later…
Paul M Ford