x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lazy, hard-pressed sub editor makes a bid for glory

What am I bid for a signed printout of this column, with its reflections on what the late Eric Partridge described in the 1972 edition of his Usage and Abusage: a Guide to Good English as "vogue" words?

What am I bid for a signed printout of this column, with its reflections on what the late Eric Partridge described in the 1972 edition of his Usage and Abusage: a Guide to Good English as "vogue" words? The question suggests both outrageous self-importance and a cavalier approach to ethics. There will, however, be no such auction; my intention was merely to give an example of the correct use of the verb "to bid", namely to make an offer at a sale.

Mr Partridge included bid in his 10-page discussion of "vogue" words after consulting a dictionary to confirm that its other proper meanings were to command, invite, order, proclaim or announce. What it does not mean, or did not mean 37 years ago, was to "attempt to do anything under the sun", and the author deplored such lazy misuse by newspaper sub-editors. Of course, bid's misfortune was to contain only three letters. This made it a handy word for the hard-pressed sub-editor, working at speed and with limited space, to slot into a headline. Reporters also began to use the word in the hope of impressing those same sub-editors with their concern for brevity; between them, they caused Mr Partridge to hate it more than any word in the English language.

There are many short, snappy words with formal definitions that the editorial process has corrupted or devalued. How often do we see "axe" in a headline or news report? It may have started life as a heavy-bladed tool (and, indeed, as ax) but is now pressed into service as a verb meaning to cut or cancel anything from jobs to uneconomical train services. A three-letter word I once found deeply annoying was gig, for a performance of live music, especially rock or jazz. My objection was that it always sounded as if the user wished to be considered "hip" or "cool"; this was enough to make it the kind of word I loathe as much as Mr Partridge loathed bid.

Inconveniently, further research has dismissed my opposition. Someone raised gig's etymology in an exchange of views at the Mudcat internet music forum and the most plausible explanation was that it dated, for the purposes of this definition, from the early days of New Orleans jazz. So its worst crime is to be of American origin. Let us take a quick look at some of the vogue words listed by Mr Partridge. I mentioned 10 pages, but four more are devoted to Second World War "adoptions", words and phrases that, as the author noted, survived a conflict claiming millions of lives to become vogue words. "Words," he remarked, "are very much tougher than warriors: even tougher than women."

Quisling is a good example. It referred initially to one man, the notorious Norwegian collaborator, Vidkun Quisling, but was quickly adopted for use, with a lower case initial, to describe any traitor. I have even heard it as a description of employees who endeavour to get on with unpopular new bosses. The non-war list of vogue words includes tragic, to mean that which is merely sad or very unfortunate, and unit ("horribly used and shamefully over-used", according to Mr Partridge). He did not always disapprove; there was much to be said, he thought, in favour of applying "proletariat" to the working class in general and not just "the body of wage-earners that owns no property".

Such a concession signifies an open mind, and that is perhaps as it should be. If Eric Partridge were still alive, he would know that dictionaries now offer a secondary definition of "bid" that gets strikingly close to "attempt to do anything under the sun". Is it not possible that even he would, in time, have adopted the broader usage, with the same shudder of self-disgust I feel when talking about attending a gig?

Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae