Magazine article The Spectator

Lost for Words

Magazine article The Spectator

Lost for Words

Article excerpt

Cleansing the stables of language LOST FOR WORDS by John Humphrys Hodder, £14.99, pp. 334, ISBN 034083658X * £12.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

During the mid-17th century the idea gained ground in various parts of Europe that the world was about to come to an end. Bewildered by the effects of widespread war and revolution, bad harvests and a miniature Ice Age taking the form of savage winters, people made ready for the sounding of the Last Trumpet, the arrival of the Four Horsemen and the whole apocalyptic shebang. Mad prophets, false messiahs and a host of other doomsters had a perfect field day proclaiming sinful mankind's imminent annihilation.

Something not altogether dissimilar is now happening in the case of the English language. Following Lynne Truss's awful warnings (I'm careful to use the word 'awful' in its original sense of 'inspiring reverence') a score of voices now urges us to repent before our split infinitives, greengrocers' apostrophes and misrelatcd participial phrases send vernacular purity to somewhere well beyond kingdom come (and please observe that 'well' here is strictly adverbial, not a modish reinforcer as in 'well random' or 'well buff'). Since the BBC is routinely derided as a Cerberus without bark or bite in this linguistic Hades, we should feel encouraged that the Jack Russell of the Today programme, expert at nipping the ankles of waffling politicians, has now chosen to take a few well-aimed snaps at solecism, jargon, cliche and weasel words, with a growl or two at Americanisms and the worst excesses of print journalism.

For John Humphrys, the deadly sins of modern English are principally those of obfuscation, manipulativeness, ignorance and sloppiness. Management-speak, for example, is viewed here as a sort of biblical plague, with gurus and consultants swarming locust-like over the green shoots of meaning and syntax. Their talent for stating the obvious in such a way as to render it impenetrable is best illustrated by his quotation from an NHS advertisement: 'Each Specialist Library will be the product of a community of practice of all those interested in knowledge mobilization and localization in their domain.' Yet, as Humphrys reminds us, professional word-smiths such as academics and reviewers are scarcely any more lucid or plain-dealing. Tracy Emin's frowzy, smelly bed became validated as an art work by the hyperbole of those who wrote in its praise. …

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