You know how it goes with corporate speak. A strange new habit grows and spreads, creeping largely unnoticed into the language, until one day you hear a sentence so bizarre, so divorced from normality, that it brings you up short. It happened to me the other day. A call centre operative, in the middle of a prolonged display of not being able to help, had to check something with a colleague. Before doing so she said: ‘Would it be OK if I put yourself on hold?’
Just stop and consider that sentence for a moment. ‘Would it be OK if I put yourself on hold?’ The woman who uttered it was once, I’m sure, a normal little girl, learning to speak. She would have got things wrong in the endearing way all toddlers do: ‘goed’ instead of ‘went’, ‘embeloke’ instead of ‘envelope’ and so on. But I bet she never once, in the furthest extremities of surreality that such mistakes can explore, uttered a sentence as absurd as ‘Would it be OK if I put yourself on hold?’
Call centre staff only have themselves to blame. (Note correct use of a ‘self’ word there.) They start saying these things in a desperate attempt to hide their ineptitude. ‘If I throw in some extra words,’ goes the thinking, ‘and use posh-sounding phrases instead of simple ones, this poor sap on the other end of the line might not notice that I am, in fact, about as much use as John Bercow in a basketball team.’ Lawyers have been doing this for centuries, with their heretofores and parties of the first part. But at least they get it right. Call centre staff don’t. They end up making mistakes like ‘yourself’ when they actually mean ‘you’.
It’s similar to the ‘…and I’ problem. This is currently approaching epidemic level. People say ‘…and I’ when they mean ‘…and me’. Even David Mellor has succumbed. In the middle of his taxi rant he told the driver to ‘listen to Ken and I tomorrow, you’re going to get a fucking bucketful’. The offensive bit of that sentence is not the final phrase (rather stylish, I thought), but the opening one. It should be ‘listen to Ken and me’. A lesson to us all there — if David Mellor can get it wrong, anyone can. He is, after all, a QC, an ex-cabinet minister and an award-winning broadcaster.
The problem with language inflation is that the market soon discounts any change. To stay ahead of the pack, to keep customers from noticing their failings, phone gimps must constantly up the ante. The ‘one syllable bad, two syllables good’ tactic inevitably leads to ‘three syllables even better’. ‘You’ has been replaced by ‘yourself’ — soon it’ll be ‘yourselfage’. ‘We did try to contact yourselfage …’. How can we stop them? Possibly by echoing the word back to them, pointing out how ridiculous it sounds. Stevie Wonder, we might quietly say as their computer checks whether we’ve given the correct date of birth, never wrote ‘Yourself is the Sunshine of My Life’. There is no James Bond movie, we could add, with the title Yourself Only Lives Twice.
Or we could counter by applying the same logic to our own side of the conversation. ‘Could myself request the balance of the account?’ we’ll ask. ‘Myself needs to make a withdrawal.’ But phone gimps won’t get the joke. It’s a condition of the job that they have their irony glands removed. So instead of seeing how wrong they are, they’ll assume that ‘myself’ is correct. They’ll start using it themselves (again, note correct use). Soon the day will arrive when someone asks: ‘Would it be OK if myself puts yourself on hold?’
No, I’m afraid this traffic only heads one way. Once you’ve started talking like this you can never stop. Phone gimps’ figures of speech are going to get more and more unnatural, until it will only be other phone gimps who can understand them. Like the inhabitants of a remote and frightening island, they will plough the furrow of inbreeding to its horrible conclusion. They will marry each other in ceremonies with specially trained vicars asking ‘Does yourself take this woman…?’, before pronouncing ‘Yourself may now kiss the bride.’ The first dance at their wedding reception will be to Bryan Adams’s ‘Every-thing I Do I Do For Yourself’. And then, alone in their hotel suite, at the most intimate moment of the most intimate act of their first night together as man and wife, male gimp will put his mouth next to female gimp’s ear and he will whisper those three magical words: ‘I love yourself.’
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