Why Don’t We Just… Relax about the English language?

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People like to sound off about the supposed rules of Correct English. Some worry about word order: “never end a sentence with a preposition”; “no split infinitives”. Some worry about meanings: “decimate means reduce by one tenth”, “pristine does not mean spotless”. If you are ever on the receiving end of this kind of thing, and you don’t know what to make of it, try asking the questions “why?” and “who says so?” Then decide for yourself.

Unfortunately, the conversation (if it is a conversation) can be more extreme than this, especially when someone declares, in a spirit almost of violence, that this or that word is “vile” or “horrible”, or flat out “does not exist”. For example, John Humphrys of the BBC says the phrasal verb “stressed out” is horrible. HW Fowler, one of the greats of English usage, classes “optimism” as repulsive. And Simon Heffer of the Telegraph says “onto” does not exist. (Humphrys would like us to delete the “out” in “stressed out”. Heffer believes “onto” must always be two words. Fowler considers “optimism” repellently vague.)

Given that “onto” (cough) does exist, that “optimism” is widely thought attractive, and that many of us are “stressed out” half our waking lives, what are we supposed to make of judgements of this kind? Should we play it safe and avoid these terms, even though the banning orders make no instinctive sense?

Once more, it is worthwhile asking where these injunctions come from. Often those trying to rub out a detail of our vocabulary seem to believe that because their own version of English covers their own particular needs, the needs of others do not matter. And they often also seem unpleasantly keen to assert that they are in the right and in the know.

Of course, even the most didactic commentator understands that English evolves: try reading Shakespeare, let alone Chaucer, let alone Beowulf. And we do need new words; naturally we do. We coin them for things that are themselves new – a “vlog” or “vaping”. We coin them for timeless things only recently identified – “quasars”. We coin them for the sake of being freshly pithy, or to throw new light where attention has wandered – “upcycling” and “intersectionality”. Some of our recent words will last; some won’t: big deal.

True, we need to be able to understand one another. And faced with a deluge of new words, we may occasionally require explanations. But are we jointly imperilled – do we come close to a breakdown in national communication – because some people say “intersectionality” or “vape”, or write “onto” rather than “on to”? Not that I’ve noticed. Between us, by a truly democratic process, we break in the words we value most, until the despisers give up or die. So why doesn’t everyone relax just a little, and celebrate our wonderful, mutating common language?

Horrible Words: A Guide to the Misuse of English by Rebecca Gowers is published by Particular Books on 31 March (£10.99)

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