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Language in Peril (the other one)

A RECENT headline in [The Irish Times] read “Grealish speculation upsets PDs”.
An alien with good English picking up The Irish Times and seeing this declaration could reasonably wonder, what sort of speculation is that? Something between grisly and relishing? Used in this way the name of the PD’s wandering star comes across as something out of Lewis Carroll, oh frabjous day, oh slithy tove, for we had come over all grealish.

The perplexed alien would assume that this was another new word, perhaps a mutant, and if he tuned in to a), a radio business forum, or b), some trendy indie blogger, he would soon come across grealish and maybe, just maybe, be able to work out its meaning. For we live in a world where not only is language subject to fantastic bursts of fashion, but tech talk and, most vitally, US-speak direct us along peculiar cul-de-sacs of communication.

Lately, for example, “harsh” has had the warm glow of popularity fall on its surprised shoulders. Recount an unpleasant or embarrassing experience and the reaction will be “mm, harsh”, from anyone under 35, anyway. A little while ago “cringe” would have filled the need for a rejoinder. And if the news being imparted was positive, “good work!” was the phrase of choice, with a sprawling emphasis on the second word. During the Lisbon Treaty post-mortem we heard a fair bit about the “disconnect” between the EU and rogue constituent nations such as our own. At least in the US presidential election the main word being driven to death is good old unambiguous “change”.

Michelle de Kretser, in her novel The Lost Dog, has one character, a human resources person in a university, declare “we should be wary of unsuccessing in-house candidates”.
Many of you reading this will have heard such abominations from people attempting to appear embedded in modern corporate culture.  “Going forward” still has many devotees, including the Taoiseach, although you would think going forward into a future littered with massive grinning deficits and restive jobless queues is the last thing he would want to do.

Language is well and truly under threat, and a country like Ireland, where people have for so long had mastery over words, should be up and concerned. The Irish tongue is indeed sweet, and its expressions, word pictures, are often poetic as well as apt. What about the term for pregnancy, ag iompar clainne, carrying family? And some of this skill and love for words transferred across into the invader’s tongue, embraced so practically by so many. But whether it be the high language of the scholars or the Dubspeak of the streets, words are the thousand legs on which the millipede of culture trundles along.
In English, language is going through a bad patch. “Presently” now means now, and not
“shortly, in a little while”, as it once did. Likewise, the irony in “fulsome” is lost on most who use it these days. English hyperactive Stephen Fry, running a radioactive series on the agonies of his mother tongue, wonders whether, when you go to a tradesman offering a quotation, does he opt for Shakespeare or Wilde.
Does this matter? Is it only sad old hacks, sitting at home reading the Oxford Dictionary for entertainment, who care? There are occasions when it is very useful, and elegant, to have one word that means “after a short time”. But presently has been washed away, the baby with the bathwater of forsooth and embonpoint and other words that, used these days, only signify the user as a pompous twat.
And consider the plight of the preposition: it’s preposterous! This is a truly puzzling development. The “in” and “with” and “of” and “to”, the bolts holding our expression together, seem to have come loose and all mixed up. Up until about a year ago, you would have been “bored with” this column. But now, according to creeping usage, you might say you are “bored of” it. Perhaps such users are thinking of Dr Johnson’s “Tired of London, tired of life.” But guys, tired and bored are different words, maybe they live in different grammatical houses?
Yes, language is evolving, it is not rigid, it reflects social change, blah blah, that is a familiar argument. But English is a finely-tuned instrument, capable of astonishing heights. Ask Eileen Battersby for a few recommendations. John Banville is there, Frank McNally is here, or anybody above the holiday paperback bar in any bookshop. Even in our newspaper columns one can read it employed beautifully; read the Weekend section; read the International Herald Tribune, specially the columnists. Should we heedlessly allow this fine creature, honed over centuries, to become a caveman’s club? If we allow the presentlys and fulsomes to mean only what they appear to on the surface, it is tantamount to abandoning the music of Arvo Part for Peter Kay’s Amarillo.

Beware the Jabberwock, my children.
Ends ends ends

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