Friday 20 November 2009

Not too clever

Jolly Wicked, Actually: The 100 Words That Make Us English, by Tony Thorne (Little, Brown)

What is Englishness? We’re so used to this topic being raised that it’s in danger of becoming a bore. It’s a good old standby for any journalist or writer who wants to show off his or her PC credentials, reminisce about this Sceptre’d Isle’s lost Golden Age or simply needs to fill up a column and doesn’t have anything more interesting to hand. How much light does this latest addition to the discussion shed on the matter?

First, a few words about what this book isn’t. Thorne – the director of the Slang and New Language Archive at King’s College London – isn’t giving us a grammar guide in the tradition of Fowler. Nor is it a look at the current state of language in the manner of veteran wordwatchers Philip Howard and Lynne ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ Truss. (Some might say that this is a good thing: the former is knowledgeable but tends to come over as being a bit wary of seeming too critical of linguistic changes, rather like a progressive teacher who wants to show that he is, like, down wiv the kids, whilst Truss, even when upbraiding language usages which are abuses, seems rather shy of saying anything which could be interpreted as upholding the pre-1960s social order.) And it’s not like The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook (1982) by Ann Barr and Peter York, the precursor to a raft of style-tribe guidebooks that were a light-hearted exercise in sociology without any of that discipline’s traditional tediousness dressed-up in impenetrable terminology.

Instead, what Thorne does is take a range of words which purport to show the transformation of ‘Old England’ into ‘New Britain’. The former is ‘everything that preceded the free-market, post industrial multi-culti environment of the twenty-first century’, whilst the latter is the ‘Americanised-to-some extent ... service-oriented, unabashed, glossy, confessional, competitive constituency we have become in the have-it-all noughties’. This leads us to suspect that what we have here is a ‘why-oh-why’ job, a lament for a lost (mythical?) English Eden. Is it? What points does Thorne want to make about the period of social upheaval he encompasses?

This brings us to Thorne’s view of the use of words (he puts the ones chosen for discussion in bold, a practice I follow here) and, indeed, to his approach to linguistic development and usage in general. Is he correct when he writes of words that ‘make us English’? Do words - by themselves - make anybody anything? Words and meanings feed off each other in a complicated, unchoreographed dance of usage and association. As he shows with wicked itself, a word can undergo ‘ironic reversal’ whereby it changes its meaning (in this instance, from denoting something evil to, in street slang, something desirable). Surely it would have been more accurate to speak of words which characterise the English as they appear at present and why they do do. What can we say of the collection of words Thorne gives us here?

Some will come as no surprise. Austerity, chum, cuppa and muddle are words which the person on the Clapham omnibus having any familiarity with English life and history would probably have chosen: whether anglosphere or bon viveur (both rather specialised) would have made the list is another matter. Chuddies (underwear) is hardly a common term even though it does demonstrate the entry of Asian terms into English usage. To do that, Thorne’s on safer ground with innit, a word ‘identified especially with black British and later Asian British speech patterns’, although as he himself points-out, the word originates from ‘a London working-class version of “isn’t it?”’

With other words, Thorne half-exposes some of the less appealing aspects of modern Britain, which is OK so far as it goes: the trouble is, that isn’t as much as it could be. For instance, he shows that suspicions aroused by the word clever have more to do with fear of being shown as stupid rather than as a desire to expose erroneous social or political theories disguised with intellectual pretensions; with frump he points-out that this word, meaning a shabby or unstylish woman, has no male equivalent; and Thorne reminds us of the jobsworth, the familiar figure of awkward-minded petty officialdom and the ways he or she might deal with difficult members of the public. But he doesn’t take his examinations further. Why do the English fear cleverness: is it through a desire to avoid socio-political nonsense or because they don’t like the hard work of dealing with the intellectually fleet-of-foot? Do the English have a particular desire to criticise women, or do they feel that unstylishness is all that can be expected of the average male, and, if so, why? And what does the petty official tell us about English standards of leadership - a fish rots from the head downwards, remember - or attitudes to displaying initiative?

Why this lack of rigour? In his introduction, Thorne writes with approval of his mother who was ‘neither common nor posh’. Later, when discussing the period of social change under consideration, after writing of such things as slaggishness and binge drinking he asks – with some seeming expectancy – ‘was all talk of a classless society, of meritocracy, in vain?’ He reminds us that things such as private education and immigration controls are in the ascendant and that there are ‘people on television called Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.’ So, whilst disliking snobbishness, he’s probably less enthusiastic about X Factor Britain and happy to see anything which might seem to challenge its ascendancy (seeming to forget that it’s white middle-class males who are responsible for much cultural dumbing-down, such as yoof culture, in the first place and doing very well out of it financially, thanks). You feel that he wants to be tougher on modern Britain in the manner of, say, Corelli Barnett with his The Pride and the Fall series of books about British decline from 1918 to 1956, or Peter Oborne with his more recent analysis of the forces (often contradictory, but united in their opposition to the traditional order) which shape modern Britain in his The Rise of the Political Class, but that Thorne is maybe held back by English reticence. It also raises the question as to whether he should have chosen as his book’s subtitle a phrase which gives the impression that he is trying to distil some sort of unchanging essence of Englishness when what he’s attempting to do is demonstrate England’s change from one sort of society to another (one of many social transformations that have occurred in England since the Reformation).

And Thorne would, perhaps, have a major problem if he was trying to get to the essence of the English: ‘Englishness’ has no real defining characteristic except, arguably, whatever The Establishment chooses to give it at anyone time. For instance, when England was supposedly Protestant, enough Catholics adhered to the old faith make them regarded as a threat to the ruling hierarchy. And in 1997, many English people did not join-in the sobfest of DianaWeek nor regard her as a blameless example of victim hood as most commentators did - (hence the short shrift given to public dissenters from the official view). As Chesterton (who, with his light-hearted love of paradox and plumpness might be said to epitomise a certain sort of Englishness) says of the Britons (by which he means the Scots, the English, the Irish and the Welsh) in his A Short History of England (1917),

‘they are in exile in their own country. They are torn between love of home and love of something else; of which the sea may be the explanation or may be only the symbol. It is also found in a nameless nursery rhyme which is the finest line in English literature and the dumb refrain of all English poems – “Over the hills and far away”.’

Other nations have their splits - France the religious/secular divisions, the United States’ split between the puritanism of the Pilgrim Fathers and the libertarianism of the Founding Fathers- but don’t seem to enjoy picking at the scab of national identity in the way that the English do. Perhaps the English are better at keeping the issue under wraps. Some might say that it’s a displaced anxiety, due to the fact that the English are always afraid that the dominant political and cultural forces in England will come along and impose a new set of values against the will of the people (whatever that may be). Maybe the English constant, almost pleasurable discussion of what makes a divided nation tick is a sign of strength indicating that, like a strong family, they can accommodate difference without too much trouble. Then again, as a Frenchman might remind us, such self-flagellation is only to be expected: masochism is le vice Anglais, after all.

Thorne’s snapshot of modern England is entertaining but a bit blurred. It’s a useful guide for us now for it makes us think about (over?) familiar words, and will be of help to present day lexicographers and grammarians as well as future social historians. It may be seen as being prescient: it was published shortly before Boris Johnson reportedly used the word oik to good effect when rescuing a passer-by from attack by young girls. But a deeper excavation into the multi-layered soil of Englishness is needed.

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