Carol Anne Duffy has a little gem of a poem called Poet for Our Times, the first four lines of which are:
I write the headlines for a daily paper.
It's just a knack one's born with all-right squire.
You do not have to be an educator,
just bang the words down like they're screaming Fire!
There's more of the same quality. For example, the poem ends:
IMMIGRANTS FLOOD IN CLAIMS HEATHROW WATCHER.
GREEN PARTY WOMAN IS A NIGHTCLUB TART.
The poems of the decade... Stuff'em! Gotcha!
The instant tits and bottom line of art.
A few weeks ago my wife, Doreen, and I decided to grace the local pizza emporium with an order for our evening meal. I rang the order through. The conversation went thus:
Good evening sir, how may I help?
I'd like to order a delivery, please.
Fantastic! What would you like?
An eight inch vegetarian hot...
Fantastic! Anything else?
Yes, one portion of kebabs.
Fantastic! Anything else?
No, that does it.
Fantastic! How might you wish to pay?
Fantastic! It will be with you in twenty minutes.
There was more, in point of fact: we had to confirm my telephone number and address. Both of those were fantastic also.
They are both in their respective ways, extreme examples of the same process, my friendly pizza purveyor and Duffy's self-styled poet. Extreme, but by no means rare. For a long time now - four or five decades to my personal knowledge - we have witnessed this process of cranking up the meaning of words or over-using them to exaggerate some aspect of (usually) a very ordinary happening or situation. Now no sportsman or team can ever just lose. You might have said that Andy Murray lost the last of five closely-contested sets 28-30. Not a bit of it :he crashed out. Manchester United may have lost by the odd goal after extra time or on penalties; no matter, they would have crashed out. No team or sportsman ever just loses. Not dramatic enough. Know what I mean? Alternatives to crashing out would include being thrashed or humiliated, but simply losing... never! A browse over the paper stand in my local newsagent shop this morning (Friday) turned up the following headlines: "Archbishop of Canterbury wants Sharia Law", "Winter has gone for ever", "Sold for £100 million : the soul of football", "Our children are being tested to destruction". A while ago, "Nation rocked by blizzards", greeted a rather ordinary fall of snow and strong winds.
Although not in this morning's examples, the hyperbole (hype as we usually now refer to it) will very often centre around the stretching "to destruction" of the natural meaning of a single word or phrase. Such words and phrases gather certain associations or emotions, usually pejorative. The words then become trigger words, releasing their newly acquired charge of emotion whenever they are rolled out for that purpose. Examples from this morning's cull would include Sharia, alien (referring to justice), Muslim and tolerance (as opposed to zero-tolerance, another such word, though usually having welcome associations). Each hype or over-use sucks out a shade more of the word's original meaning. Hyperbole becomes almost hyperbolism, used as an art form.
While I was still mulling over these things the other day, I discovered that Jim Murdoch had weighed in with his post on swearing (Feb 7th)and with a comment to that post, mentioning how swear words were losing their power. Exactly so, they are a splendid example of what I have in mind. I do not doubt that this overuse of words, stretching their natural meaning, and this incessant "shouting" is today's greatest threat to the language, for we have all become guilty of it. Here are some I have heard recently: "I hate men with large knots in their tie!" Really? I take leave to doubt that she meant what she said. She probably meant that she doesn't like to see large knots in men's ties. Not the same thing at all. "I love bald men!" What, all of them? Trivial examples, no doubt, but those two words "hate" and "love" are constant offenders and process is sometimes easier to see in the trivial than in the cataclysmic. (So, why shouldn't I indulge myself once in a while?) One of the basic rules of hype is: never use a comparative when a superlative will do. It's no good having a better car, you must have the best. "Today" was not just warmer than yesterday, it was the warmest this month, even if it is only the 4th of the month. I haven't mentioned advertising, one of the worst offenders, but everyone will have their own examples. Here is mine: "It is more than a car: it is a culture".
Not everyone will agree with me that the examples mentioned above represent the greatest threat to our language, and it is true there are others. An interesting one I have come upon recently, though not one likely, I think, to prove fatal, comes from predictive texting. Prophets of doom have long bemoaned the "C U l8er" culture, though I see no reason to think that the youngster (it usually is) who sends that will thereby become unable to write "See you later." No, it is the predictive element that might become of interest. The predictive function on the mobile guesses at the word you are wanting to write and changes the letters in the current word whenever you type a letter that indicates to it that its latest guess is incorrect. If when you have completed the word, it is still wrong, you then make the corrections - usually by pressing the * when all the letters will rearrange themselves and form the word you want - or not, when you will have to correct it manually. I find this very tedious, and so, apparently, do some youngsters, for they are developing the habit of not correcting the final word, but leaving the mobile's guess in place. I tried writing (not sending!) a few texts using this system: my intended "Giving Pat a lift." became "High sat a Jjj". On another attempt "Barmaid" became "cabmad", "At the pics with Pat" became "At thief sigh whig sat"The incredible fact is that the kids are learning to read these messages . A new, alternative, language is developing! Handwriting and neologisms are blamed for much that is wrong or going wrong, as is one of my pet hates, the ascendancy of graphics over words. Practically every User's Manual and every set of Assembly Instructions contains either no words or a bare minimum. Instead you get symbols, arrows and drawings of unrecognizable objects. No need to read at all these days, some would say. Nevertheless, I remain convinced about the major evil.
Don't misunderstand me, I am not arguing for stasis. When you have that you have a body on your hands, yet people have tried: governments indeed have set up committees to rule on correct and incorrect use. All such are doomed to inglorious failure. The language goes its own way in response to changing circumstances and changing needs. it has always done so, and long may it continue to do so, but abuse of the language is not a changing condition or a changing need. Even so, it has seen off greater threats in the past and will no doubt do so again. In my view, one group of people charged with the responsibility of acting as guardians to the language are the poets. It is not why we write or try to write poetry, but it remains the case that while there is a body of writing being produced in which such issues are paramount, there remains hope of a full recovery. Seamus Heaney is a good example. His interest in Anglo Saxon poetry, his feeling for each word, knowledge of its roots and, through those roots, his awareness of its associations and allusions, all contribute towards making him the poet that he is and guardian supreme.
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