I sometimes think that my campaigns for the authenticity of the English language are a lost cause, and cast myself in the role of a dying warrior defending the old order, a sort of Hereward the Wake of grammar and meaning. There is a rearguard action to save ‘literally’ which gives commentators a giggle now and again. But this is not the general picture. Some things have gone already – I think Arthur Scargill killed off ‘refute’ so that it now means ‘unconvincingly deny’ rather than its proper meaning, to provide evidence that disproves a contention. ‘Incredible’ and ‘unbelievable’ go their appalling way, now meaning ‘vaguely interesting’. I got some fans when I described Stephen Twigg MP calling the achievements of academies as ‘unbelievable’ (others agreed he was unknowingly using the word in its original meaning), and protested when David Cameron wanted to make the Imperial War Museum ‘more incredible than ever’ – which struck me as not perhaps the right thing to say about a museum. Similarly, Adam Rutherford described research on medieval persecution of the Jews as “incredible” when he, sadly, meant the reverse. But generally, it seems a battle that has been lost, and maybe a war.
Where I think the tide may have turned is in respect of the emotionally incontinent word used routinely by politicians and business leaders. Some years ago, if a friend said they had a passion, you would wait to get over it. If they had an obsession, you would seek help. And if they saw visions, then a session as an in-patient was called for.
No longer. Every sports commentator describes a team’s ‘passion’. David Cameron is passionate about …well … high speed trains, the union with Scotland, public safety, renewable energy, the environment, minimizing EU legislation, overseas aid goals, and … well, I could go on. I remember Ruth Kelly coming to a college conference when she had been made Education Secretary, telling of her ‘passion for education’, a passion she had concealed in her previous careers as journalist, civil servant and politician, and her subsequent time as a banker. Any crummy company with an MBA in charge will tell you of their obsession with quality. Every plan for a public or private body has to have a ‘vision’ – just doing things better or cheaper doesn’t hit the spot. And to deliver – or worse, ‘deliver on’ – these emotions, you have to be determined, with no ifs and no buts, rather as the Tory cabinet is determined to reduce immigration or the national debt (but fails). But now, now we are beginning to get a backlash. Journalists are noticing the nonsense. It’s even getting as far as ‘awesome’, that bastard child of a Californian high school that slipped in whilst everyone else was saying ”Oh, my God !”.
One of George Orwell’s most memorable essays was “Politics and the English Language”, which he started by saying the language was in a bad way. He described the meaning of phrases being hidden as phrases fell on the landscape like snow, first obscuring and then hiding reality. He actually took the mickey out of ‘radical transformation’ sixty years ago, and politicians and CEOs are still bloody doing it. What we need is a new Orwell to expose the rubbish. I will do it when I have a moment.