Thursday, 4 March 2010

Pedant's corner

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Yesterday, I was happily watching The Daily Politics.  I love and revere The Daily Politics. I think it is my favourite programme on British television. I get quite twitchy when Parliament is in recess and the show goes off the air. And as for Andrew Neil: I used to think him embarrassing and vulgar, all that running off to Tramp with glamorous Indian ladies, and now he has turned into a brilliant, forensic political interviewer. Which just goes to show. (Not sure quite what; something about books and covers perhaps.)

Anyway, there I was, plugged into the BBC iplayer, in hog heaven, when Tessa Jowell, who used to work in the Department of Education, said that young people were 'disinterested in politics'. At which point, my pedant alarm went off. She meant, of course, uninterested.
That's it, I thought; it's official. It's like the day the music died. If a former cabinet minister can go on national television, on Lord Reith's BBC (purpose: to educate, inform and entertain) and misuse the word disinterested, then it is quite deceased. It is an ex-word; it has gone to meet its maker, which quite soon will be spelt 'it's maker', because no one gives a damn about the apostrophe either.

I am not one of those dead hand of language people. I am not for things cast in stone. I am not much for exceptionalism either (I have to go and hide behind the sofa when people talk about America being the greatest nation on earth) but I will hang out a flag for the exceptionalism of English. I think it is an extraordinary, supple, various carnival of a language, and I think this is because, like a shark, it never stops moving. We have no stern Academy, like the French, which litigates on neologisms (just say non). English ruthlessly steals anything it can get its hands on and makes it its own. It pinches from a multitude of other tongues, from Japanese (tycoon, tsunami), to Malay (gong, cockatoo), to Hindi (bungalow, thug), to Norwegian (ombudsman, quisling). I love that it borrows and shifts; it makes the very use of words feel playful and surprising. I love that to google is now a verb.

Every schoolgirl knows that Shakespeare made up thousands of words for fun, although this might be a bit of an urban myth. Whether or not he actually invented gnarled and bedazzled and lacklustre and eyeball does not really matter. What is certain is that he picked up the language by the scruff of the neck and threw it about the room. Take this, from Love's Labour's Lost:
'Some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight zany,    some mumble-news, some trencher-knight, some Dick.'

Zany, which is one of the words people attribute to Shakespeare, is the only one of that list that survives to this day, but don't you wish that mumblenews and carrytale had caught on?

Excessive reverence is death to language, and a too-strict reliance on grammatical rules can act as a straitjacket. Occasionally, I throw my Strunk and White out of the window and go crazy. I start sentences with prepositions (don't faint at the back); I leave out commas for the sake of momentum; on my nuttier days I sometimes split an infinitive. I'm with James Thurber, who once wrote: 'When I split an infinitive, it is going to damn well stay split'.

My deity is not correctness, but clarity. It is for the sake of clarity that I shall hunt down dangling modifiers until I have no more breath in me. I think there is an intrinsic ugliness in them, but the real sin is that they make you go back and read a sentence again, to check the meaning.  It is why I believe the usage of the apostrophe really does matter. It is why I care about disinterested. Now Ms Jowell has done her worst, every time someone uses the word, we shall have to stop and ask ourselves: are they bored, or do they not have a dog in the hunt? We shall have to resort to unbiased or neutral instead, which do not carry the same nice distinction. That is why I am mourning the loss.

According to the New York Times, people were worrying about this as long ago as 1954. In the eighties, Anthony Burgess blamed the hapless USA, calling the use of disinterested to mean uninterested 'the worst of all American solecisms'. See what excellent company I keep? But the fate of pedants is to get hoist with their own petard. Here is the awful irony: when I go to the dictionary I discover that the original meaning was 'not interested'. All my carefully juggled balls fall crashing to the floor. No less an authority than the American Heritage dictionary tells me that the word started in the sixteenth century with its meaning of not interested, and only shifted its definition in the eighteenth. It turns out that disinterested is merely going back to its roots.

Now I have to find something else to get cross about.

In the meantime, I leave you with a picture of lovely Will Shakespeare, the zaniest of the zanies:


PS Thank you all so much for your enchanting birthday wishes from yesterday. They made me quite teary. 

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