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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-04-21)

Oh, b…b…bother!

In my last column I mentioned the prudishness of the English-speaking bourgeoisie, and by happy coincidence I can report that primness is alive and well and living in South Africa. Just after my last piece saw the light, I heard a woman on a radio phone-in programme discussing her incontinent cat with an animal behaviourist. “So far, thank goodness,” she said, “I’ve only had to deal with Number One – I haven’t had to face The Unmentionable yet.” Everybody knew exactly what she meant, and were probably grateful that she didn’t lower the tone of the discussion by saying “urine”.

This is an odd phenomenon, in a period when four-letter words are so commonplace. It seems to be accompanied by a matching feebleness in expressing disapproval of anything or anybody. A writer in a Durban morning paper remarked on the prevalence of “unacceptable” as the ultimate term of disapproval, and he’s absolutely right. Everything nasty, from 600 road-accident deaths in one holiday season to racism or the incidence of Aids is “unacceptable”. If the speaker is really enraged, then it is “totally unacceptable”, and that’s that. There is nothing more to say. Perhaps in the old days a fellow would say, “I won’t accept that”, and the other fellow would say, “So what are you going to do about it?”, and then there would have been some enjoyable fisticuffs in the parking lot. Not any more – “Unacceptable” is the last word on the matter.

This seems a pity, in a language so rich in invective. They do things better elsewhere. Here is Boris Johnson, a very well known British journalist, writing in The Weekly Telegraph on the subject of the Chancellor of the Exchequer:

“Gordon Brown squats like a vast octopus at the centre of Whitehall, and every one of the four hundred billion pounds spent by government has had to be prised individually from his myriad suckers. For four years the tentacles of this kleptomaniac kraken have been silently flipping through our wallets, taking more and more…”

Now that’s more like it. Not only must Mr Johnson have felt better after writing it; he made me feel better after reading it, and probably you as well.

Along with feebleness of language seems to go a certain feebleness in monitoring it, even among those who should know better. There’s a programme on our “English language” radio service in which a panel of cognoscenti fields questions from listeners. One of these had to do with the expression “to home in “ on something. A listener’s friend had talked of “HONING in” on a solution to a problem. On being corrected, he put up a spirited defence: yes, he knew that “hone” meant “sharpen”; the people concerned had sharpened their wits, their reflexes and their pencils, and solved the problem. Therefore “hone” was correct.

But it wasn’t. “Hone” is simply wrong. To start with, it’s a transitive verb, requiring an object. You hone a knife on a grindstone. “Home”, as a verb, is intransitive, not requiring an object – a pigeon homes in on its loft, a missile on its target, and so on. To think of sharpening as a route to a target requires an impossible leap of logic.

The dismaying thing was that the two panel experts differed on this question. One said more or less what I’ve said: “hone” is wrong. The other, a university teacher of “linguistics”, feebly said that we might have to accept “hone” as an alternative to “home” in this expression, and let it seep its way into the dictionaries.

Why should we? Contextually Yours (Ulysses Online)




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