Why the mangling of language matters

10 July 2021

9:00 AM

10 July 2021

9:00 AM

I thought that this week I would share with you a bunch of words and phrases which are currently overused and I find thoroughly annoying. The idea came to me after hearing a woman with the IQ of a soap dispenser speaking on Radio 4 about the godawful programme Love Island. During the course of her peroration she continually referred to myself. Not to me, but to herself as ‘myself’. Such as: ‘I would say so far as myself is concerned…’ No, sugartits. The word is ‘I’m’.

She is far from the only culprit: myselfitis is spreading rather more rapidly than the Delta variant. So too is its kind of antithesis. Twice recently I have been asked by phone-callers if ‘yourself’ is happy with the service being provided, etc. Why do they do this? Do they think that addressing me as ‘you’ is too blunt? Or is it an attempt to make their grammar more pretentious so that I might afford them greater respect? I have to say, if this is the case, it doesn’t work. It makes me want to smash their spectacles and spit on their shoes.

One suggestion I’ve heard is that ‘myself’ gets misused (it’s a reflexive pronoun) because the speaker is worried about the egotism inherent in the word ‘me’. So it’s a kind of false modesty, then. Whatever, it gets my goat. So does the wholly unnecessary use of the word ‘today’ — again, usually deployed by people in the service sector. Such as ‘How can I help you today?’ or, upon my entering a restaurant — one that I’ve never been in — ‘And where would you like to sit today?’

I cannot for the life of me work out what ‘today’ in this context signifies. Is it something these poor bastards are taught to say at some hospitality finishing school? ‘Always add the word “today” when talking to a customer. It will let them know how alert you are.’ Or do they think that I am not wholly aware that it is today — that it might, instead, be yesterday, or several weeks ago, or tomorrow?

These infractions are not politically offensive, of course, and not really something to get worked up about. They are just another tiny little reason why I will not necessarily rage against the dying of the light, when the dying of the light finally arrives, but instead greet it warmly, shaking it by the hand and saying: ‘Dying of the light! God bless you. I thought you were never coming, mate.’

Equally minor is the verbal tic I hear more and more often when people are about to state an opinion. The ubiquitous prefix: ‘You know what…?’ One supposes that this is intended to let the listener know he or she is about to be granted an audience to a hidden truth of great meaning and import. Whereas in fact the speaker is just about to tell you that he intends to wear a face mask after 19 July, or something similarly humdrum and boring and stupid. These words and phrases are kind of prosthetic limbs for the intellectually amputated. But sure, they are not something about which one should get too overwrought.

The remaining annoyances, though, all have political or cultural baggage draped over their shoulders. The word ‘vile’, for example, is overused to such an extent that it has almost lost its meaning. It is always deployed when a charge of racism has been made, as if the writer or speaker is bound by law not merely to distance themselves from whatever transgression had been made, but to eviscerate that transgression with the most severe word they can find in their stunted lexicon. The various ‘racist’ social media posts made by the ‘disgraced’ cricketer Ollie Robinson were described across the national press as being ‘vile’. They were nothing of the sort. They were daft, at the very most. And this mangling of language matters, because I will bet that very few people bothered to check exactly what Robinson had said. They will have been content to believe simply that they were ‘vile’.

Likewise, the word ‘toxic’. In my world, no words are toxic. Stuff which is toxic includes Strontium-90, blue asbestos and nerve gas: not words. But ‘toxic’ these days is used simply to describe comments which run counter to the opinion of the person passing comment, or perhaps counter to the prevailing orthodoxy. This may make those words problematic or controversial but it does not make them ‘toxic’. Nobody is going to die. It tends to be only right-of-centre views that are possessed of toxicity. Both the admirable David Starkey and Roger Scruton have been accused of spouting views which are ‘toxic’. No, they’re just different views to your own, snowflake.

Which brings me to ‘survivor’. I speak as a survivor of measles, chickenpox, pneumonia and, following a riotous holiday in Thailand many years ago, peculiarly resilient pubic lice. But me? I’m OK. I’ll get by. I survived. Whereas once you were a survivor if you had managed to get into one of the Titanic’s lifeboats or had fought and been wounded on the Somme, it is now used to describe people — usually women — who were touched inappropriately on the top of the leg by an unpleasantly sweating middle–aged bloke. They are ‘survivors’. The word has been deployed (by the left) because to use the word ‘victim’ is disempowering. And yet ‘survivor’ is in a sense even more disempowering because it implies that their entire lives have been defined by that rogue accosting. Never has a word been more devalued than ‘survivor’.

And then there are the phrases used by the left to deny reality. Such as ‘lived experience’ and ‘my truth’, which these days easily trump objective fact: if you think you experienced it, you must be right, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And best of all — social justice. There is no such thing as social justice.

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