Friday, 13 July 2012

In which I muse on language and Twitter, on pedantry and insults

Posted by Tania Kindersley.


It’s quite modish to be rude about social networking. First of all, it has a horrid name. I wish someone could think up something better. Social networking has the ghastly whiff of jargon about it; it’s the kind of thing you might find in a leaflet about interfacing over probable outcomes, going forward. Second of all, it is infected with the ugly things called Trolls. Trolls is just another word for rude, shouty people, with no edit button. Third of all, it takes place in the darkened space of the lonely room, rather than out in the park or the restaurant or the kitchen, or other, more benign environments. It is often considered an atomising force, rather than an act of human community.

People are always leaving Twitter in a huff, or ostentatiously shutting down their Facebook page. I rather sympathise with this, because I have absolutely no defence against the negative comment. But even if sometimes I need to take a couple of days off from the hurly burly of the communal sites on the internet, to regroup and butch up, I always come back. The advantages far outweigh the drawbacks.

I am particularly in love with Twitter at the moment. Often, if I wake early and do not need to leap out of bed, I listen to the Today programme for a while and noodle about on Twitter. There is a whole set of clever, ironical people, discussing what this minister said about that, or which apparatchik refused to answer the question. The Lobby is usually up, and so there will be some excellent insider political talk; my racing Tweeters will be rubbing their hands over the 2.30 at Newmarket; often, a lone journalist will be breaking news from a faraway country of which we know little. It is a sort of miracle really. There am I, up in the north of Scotland, lying in bed with the Pigeon watching on, whilst the whole world unfurls on my small screen.

The thing that particularly amuses me is when hares get sent running. I never know what thought or sentiment will strike a chord. Sometimes I think I have written something rather pithy and apposite, and it falls like a lonely stone into the deepest well. Sometimes, I say something mere and whimsical, and suddenly, it’s a thing, and it takes off and assumes a life of its own.

This happened today. Someone put out a tweet saying that 7 in 10 Britons are ‘disinterested’ in the Olympics. This made me very, very sad. My melancholy fell not because of prosaic Britons refusing to get excited about a sporting event. (I guarantee that people will perk up once the thing is up and running; it’s the thought that does not inspire, what with the traffic problems and the logistical disasters, and the G4S epic screw-up. Once Rebecca Adlington wins her first gold medal, everyone will go crazy, and forget the congestion in the Mile End Road.) The sadness was because a smart, professional woman did not know what disinterested meant. It does not mean having a lack of interest, but having no stake in the outcome. It is more nuanced than neutral, more immediate than unbiased. It is a lovely, useful word, and I fear it may now be lost.

Anyway, I tweeted about this, and instead of being sent to pedant’s corner with no breakfast I was greeted by a chorus of other bugbears. Discrete and discreet apparently are now routinely confused, as are principle and principal. One linguistically-minded gentleman even said that he was inspired to a hymn in praise of gerunds. One women informed me that she was in a meeting with a BBC lawyer, who solemnly announced that he wished the application of ‘Charterhouse Rules’. (We suspect he must have meant Chatham House rules, unless there is some kind of obscure minor public school rulebook used by the legal profession.)
So there, on a dull Friday morning, was a perfect festival of etymological delight. Of course, etymology can be as much friend as foe. When I dig back into the origins of disinterested, I find that it did once mean lack of interest, and switched to its current meaning some time in the 1650s. Perhaps there were seventeenth century pedants mourning that shift. Perhaps the fact that it is shifting again should not be cause for tears, but a robust example of the living, sinuous nature of the English language.

I do draw the line at refute and reject, though. But true to the antic form of the language, it turns out that refute did indeed mean reject until the 1540s. Still, all linguistic scholars now agree that it means to disprove by means of argument, and if anyone wants to take me on with sixteenth century precedent, let them.
Just as I was finishing this, and thinking about language, someone on Twitter put up a link to the transcript of the magistrate’s summing up in the John Terry trial. (For my foreign readers, he is a footballer accused of racial aggravation.) I was struck by this paragraph:

‘The defendant does not deny that he used the words, “fuck off, fuck off”, “fucking black cunt” or “fucking knobhead”. His case is that his words were not uttered by way of abuse or insult nor were they intended to be abusive or insulting.’

You know how I always say that language matters? I may have lived a sheltered life, but I don’t really see how calling someone a black cunt is not insulting or abusive. It was not as if Terry said it in a hail fellow well met way: my old china, my dear old black cunt. Even that is really not nice, but I suppose one might argue the intention was not to insult.

Still, through the mysteries of the British legal system, and the maze of meaning and context, John Terry was found not guilty. I could say that I was a disinterested observer, but that would not quite be true. I do have skin in this game. The great aunt in me would very much like not to live in a society where people run around calling each other black cunts. Call me old-fashioned if you like.

Pictures of the day:

13 July 1

13 July 2

13 July 3

13 July 4

13 July 4-001

Red’s view:

13 July 5

13 July 6

The mare, in sepia, pointing her dear toe:

13 July 10

Having a pick:

13 July 11

Are you amazed by my restraint in not writing of her today? It took heroic self-control, especially as she decided that today was the day that she would excel herself in sweetness. For someone who can be so zoomy, she can also be incredibly soft and dopey. Today was one of those days. So I just did a bit of groundwork with her, and then hung out. I sat on the stile by the henhouse and she rested her head against my shoulder, and I scratched her sweet spot, and she closed her eyes, and we stayed like that for quite a long time, whilst the swallows flew about us, and the little grey pony munched her way through the good grass.

The mother and Stepfather’s small terrier is staying whilst Mum is in the hospital for a procedure:

13 July 14

She really is rather sweet:

13 July 16

The Pigeon tolerates visitors, but is much more concerned with sniffin’ about:

13 July 16-001

The hill:

13 July 20


  1. When I read what your great aunt said, I laughed out loud. Not LOL, but embarrassing, loud laughter that woke up a cat.

    So many good points. The murder of a language is deplorable. The Brits would say the Americans have been murdering the King's English for decades, and that may be true, but we only really got started on killing American English when we quit teaching it in schools. Now, in first definitions, the Miriam Webster Dictionary can't tell the difference between uninterested and disinterested. Sadly, this shortcoming is appearing in society: there are no disinterested parties anywhere. There are only those with something to gain. But that's another topic altogether.

    Thanks for the interesting etymology.


    1. Thanks, Bird... you just made me re-read this post five times trying to find a quote from her great aunt. There is none. She said "the great aunt IN ME"...

      Case in point, I suppose.


    2. Sorry! Come to think of it, when I originally read it, I was clear on that point. Was having a day, however, and apparently it went right out of mind when I started laughing. Thanks, Marcheline!


  2. This is such a lovely blog post. I am an English grad student and I am in the process of finishing up my thesis. I keep thinking that I don't have time to read my favorite blogs, but this was just so refreshing. Exactly what I needed. Sometimes you just need to take a break. Also, I am of the opinion that if a person is going to break the rules, they should know what rules they are breaking. There are people out there who think that "irregardless" is a word and that it means "regardless". It does not! I try to tell them without being rude about it. I'm an English teacher. I can't turn it off.

  3. I was an English teacher, and spend far too much of my life yelling FEWER at the BBC when one of its representatives should have said it rather than LESS. There are two distinctly different opposites to the word MORE, but that distinction has been rubbed away over time and now pretty much universally lost.


    As for Mr Terry, it was not an unprovoked verbal attack, so he has been found not guilty, it was admitted by the defence that he called Ferdinand a black cunt but it was explained he had his reasons ansd those reasons were not overridingly and blatantly racist in intent. I am afraid certain types of men (and even some women) when on the outside of a lot of beer or when their dander is up will let such epithets fly. Just be glad you don't know any, Tanya!

    In the London suburb we lived in until recently the air of some pubs was blue with such words. I called them Plasterers' Drinking Holes and wouldn't go back to them once I'd registered such language on my radar. Sorry to any clean-mouthed plasterers reading...

  4. Another one for the list. Compliment when they mean complement.

  5. Aboyne Music Lover14 July 2012 at 12:32

    Tanya, have you noticed the BBC News often starts with a "hanging" present participle? e.g. "Enjoying the rain at Wimbledon. Andy Murray's match goes ahead under cover." or "Facing humiliation. Rangers FC is demoted to the third division."

    Not as ugly as fbc, but damned annoying once you start to notice it.

  6. I am almost certain I have made the disinterested/ uninterested mistake!
    (And am not surprised at these muddled dictionary definitions. Check out "sanction", for example!)
    Meanwhile, I remain apoplectically stuck at the elementary stage of people who confuse/ misuse/ abuse they're, their and there and you're and your. Ah me.

  7. So, actually then, 10 out of 10 Britons are disinterested in the Olympics. Only the people competing are not disinterested, as they are the only ones with a stake in the outcome.


    I, myself, couldn't give a hoot about the Olympics. I'd rather spend time in a field with a red horse any day.

  8. This is what the interwebs are for - to remind us that we're not alone in coming over all headmistressy over the misuse of language. Thank you thank you....
    Mind you, sometimes people using words wrongly create some brilliant neologisms. My favourite is one that came up in a
    TV vox-pop a few years ago. A woman being interviewed wasn't sure (I say, kindly. She didn't know) whether to say respond or retaliate. So she came out with 'People fink they've gotta resilitate.' I love it, and my late partner and I used it all the time.

  9. Good one, Deborah! It sounds like standing up for oneself while making darn sure others know that's what you're doing.
    The Washington Post used to do an annual new words contest ("Style Invitational"). For example, from the 2007 list: "sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it."
    And, my all-time favorite" "Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and an asshole."


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