If language is a living thing, what exactly is ‘proper’ English?
With those words, the British journalist William Connor, better known as Cassandra, resumed his column for the Daily Mirror after a break during the Second World War. Connor, often provocative, wrote with the engaging simplicity that exemplified his newspaper’s role as a literacy tool for working-class readers of modest education. His column ran for more than 30 years until shortly before his death in 1967.
Readers of this newspaper need much shorter memories to recall “My Word”, in which I discussed uses and abuses of English. That column appeared from November 2008 until April 2010, attracting lively responses for and against the points made.
English is a living language and, of course, an evolving one. Only irredeemable old pedants resist all change, but it is surely reasonable to hope certain standards of clarity and elegance can be upheld. The trouble is that people easily disagree on what those standards may be.
Connor wrote for what has become the tabloid press. Popular newspapers have incontrovertibly moved with the times – they had little choice and still find themselves in steep decline – but have simultaneously become more vulgar in both content and expression.
Regretting that development, and a growing tendency for people to communicate sloppily in everyday life, is not the same as being hostile to different ways of using English.
On my bookshelf is a prized possession, JR Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, first published in 1859, which was presented to me by colleagues when I left Abu Dhabi to return to Europe.
This wonderful reference work inevitably bears witness to the extent to which the United States and the United Kingdom are lands separated by a common language, a proposition that also divides authorities on whether George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde or another writer said it first.
But it demonstrates, too, that many words or phrases, used by Americans but jarring to some British ears and eyes, have inconvenient origins in the old world.
I have always disliked “garner” as a verb meaning to gather or collect, and long suspected solid American roots. Instead, its etymology is thoroughly European, revealing Middle English, French and Latin influences. If I dislike “garner”, I loathe “nab”, a word preferred to arrest in English-language Indian publications. It looks and sounds like a relic of children’s comics from decades ago. Again, the provenance is European, from the Middle English adjective “napand” (meaning grasping or greedy) to, according to some authorities, assorted Scandinavian verbs.
Predictably, my column failed to halt the spread of ugly tabloid constructions, which increasingly penetrate even the more serious press as well as television and radio.
More than ever, apostrophes are treated as if their use and positioning are optional. My football club alerted supporters to next season’s “fixture’s list”. When the ultraconservative British commentator Simon Heffer’s book, Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write ... and Why It Matters, was published, he was probably seen as a figure of fun by as many people as acclaimed a noble defender of linguistic style.
But then, disappointment lurks at every corner for champions of “proper” English.
It comes as a bitter surprise to learn, from Churchill’s Wit: The Definitive Collection, Richard M Langworth’s splendid volume of the sayings of one great speaker of English, that numerous quotations attributed to the British statesman were not his at all.
So Lady Astor, the US-born English politician, did not tell Winston Churchill that if he were her husband, she would put poison in his coffee. Therefore, he cannot have made the delicious retort: “If I were married to you, I’d drink it.” The exchange may ooze wit, eloquence and attention to grammatical detail but Langworth cites evidence that it was a joke from a Chicago newspaper in 1900.
Perhaps the time has come to look again periodically at the articulate, annoying and amusing things we do with one of the world’s most widely spoken and commonly taught languages. But always bear in mind, as I share these thoughts, that when Cassandra announced his return to the Mirror’s pages, he also said: “It is a powerful hard thing to please all of the people all of the time.”
Colin Randall is former executive editor of The National
Updated: June 28, 2014 04:00 AM