I haven't written one of my columns for a long time. I failed miserably at the discipline of writing a regular, deadlined, eight-hundred or so words about whatever gripped me, incensed me or stirred me. It was a chance to get stuff off my chest and, perhaps and hopefully, entertain at the same time. As with so much in life, I failed.
Well, here's one. Just for the fun of it, and just because I could.
As English as.....
I realise I'm probably in a minority. I realise I'm probably a bit old-fashioned when it comes to this particular subject. I also realise that even I don't get it right every time. I am human after all. Being human, of course, I like my comforts, the things that make me feel welcome and secure. And being human, like everyone else, I like to know where my boundaries are, what is expected of me and how I fit in. Fitting in with others is important to all of us, whether we realise it or not. Even the most insular hermit, stuck up on some very uncomfortable rock somewhere in all weathers, doing a form of penance I can't even comprehend, needs to know that there's a purpose to what they are doing, that someone - even if it's their perceived and assumed deity - somewhere, knows about them and cares about them and slots them into some set of rules. I'm not necessarily a 'rules person', but there are some things I hold sacred and unviolable.
To me, probably because I love to communicate and do that for a living as well as a hobby, the thing I'm most picky about, and stand up and shout for most often, is the beauty and purity, the shocking simplicity and complexity of the language I speak. All language is astonishing, all languages do a fabulous job. If I had to give an example and a justification for man's greatest invention it would not be the wheel, it would not be the ability to harness the elements, such as fire, it would not even be chocolate. Man's greatest invention, our greatest and most worthwhile achievement would have to be language, and in particular the written word.
With the written word we can transcend time and space. We can impart knowledge and ideas, opinions and feelings, not just in our own little communities but across the planet, across the ages and beyond. That insular hermit, if he were sitting on some Greek mountain top a couple of thousand years ago will have been able, because of the invention of the written word, to communicate directly with me. Admittedly, there has to have been a translator middle-man but the principle still stands.
I love my language, English. I love its history and its structure. I love the fact that its parent was West Frisian, that it migrated to these islands with explorers from north-western European countries, that its early influences were northern European and Scandinavian, that it took what it needed from the classical and romantic languages but didn't become them. I love that it stood up against the Norman onslaught but was not subsumed by it. The Normans were formidable but they couldn't bend English to their will in the way they could the Anglo-Saxon culture they found here. We don't even speak a version of Norman French, just some of its words to describe things we didn't need to before. The Anglo-Saxon peasantry of Norman Britain looked after cows, sheep, pigs and chickens, while the infesting Norman nobility saw beef (beouf), mutton (mouton), pork (porc) and poultry (poulet) on their dining tables. This gave English depth and colour and at least two words for everything, while still not being able to take it over.
Other threats to English have come along over the centuries. It took a great many people, laying down their lives for what they believed in, for it to be acceptable and lawful to own a Bible in English. From my lofty viewpoint of the twenty-first century I find it astonishing that a self-professed compassionate organisation like the Roman Catholic Church (though even in my naivety, I should know better) should not want anyone other than its own approved minions interpretting those texts. How would you control, dictate and keep the people docile if you gave them freedom of thought? Silly me. Thus it was a crime punishable by death to own a Bible in English almost into the middle of the sixteenth century, until sheer force of numbers got them thinking again.
But, none of that is actually my point, it's all just background to it. My point is about the English language as it is now. I understand that language evolves and changes, adapts and shuffles sideways to represent and describe the ever-moving now. I understand and applaud that English doesn't stagnate and remain steadfast when all around it moves forward. But there are trends in the English that I hear and read that appal me. I'm appalled by the proliferation of acronyms that creep into speech. There is no need for them, they represent words, real words, perhaps even made up words, but words none the less - why not just say the words? The names for things change even though the things themselves don't. Why? What is the point?
Here is my example - undoubtedly petty, yet immensely frustrating. The humble potato has been a part of our lives in Europe for almost as long as it's been legal to own a Bible written in English. It has fed us and starched our clothes. It has raised nations and doomed them. Potatoes come in many varieties and colours, but for our purposes here, they come in many forms; potatoes are our versatile friend. Raw, I wouldn't recommend for anything other than printing or planting. Boiled, a British staple going back generations. Roasted, part of every traditional Sunday lunch. Baked, in its jacket, covered in baked beans and or cheese, incredible. Sauted, croquetted, and other ways, they are enjoyed just as much.
My gripe begins here. There are also chips and crisps. Chips, in this context, are only those fat, fatty things that lie alongside fish in Britain's greatest contribution to the culinary world. Although they were probably invented in Belgium - though they put that spawn of Satan, Mayonnaise, on them, so they don't really count - it's the British diet that has popularised them. Those, and only those are chips. Crisps come in packets, are very thin slices of potato fried until golden brown and then allowed to cool, become crispy - there's a hint right there - and best eaten with a beer or from a lunchbox. Those are crisps, just crisps. I am fed up, annoyed and disappointed beyond measure that they are more and more being called chips here. They are not chips. I don't buy them very often, but when I do I will now only buy ones that clearly say 'Crisps' on the packet. If they say 'Chips' they stay on the shelf. They are not chips, so why call them chips? They are not a fashionable commodity, so don't try to give them fashionable name-changes. They have been called 'crisps' here in Britain for generations, they don't need to be called anything else. Just saying.