on language

Winner of a 2014 Plain English Award.

Do you hate going forward? Do you shudder when a colleague wants to reach out? Are you disgusted by low-hanging fruit, sick of being on the team, and reluctant to open the kimono? If modern business-speak makes you want to throw up, then my latest book is for you. It’s both a satirical deep dive and a come to Jesus moment for verbally downtrodden workers everywhere. It’s now in paperback, and you can order it here.

Here I am talking about it with Simon Mayo on BBC R2:

You can also listen to me on BBC R4’s Today programme here, and read some edited extracts at the Guardian. Good luck cascading the learnings down to your team. :(

‘Funnier still…  a brutal demolition… a valuable glossary to corporate life’ — Spectator

‘Hauls the jargon words of business and bureaucracy out of context and interrogates them ruthlessly for meaning… he has linguistic sense and sensibility on his side’ — Times

‘Succeeds in being informative and enlightening on a vexing subject… A book based on laughing, even in exasperation, over office jargon in fact sheds light on the purpose and the psychological effect of office language as a whole’ — TLS

13 April 2013

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr

Did he just say what I think he said? In late 2010, Britain erupted in merriment when a radio interviewer attempted to introduce his guest, “the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt,” and accidentally replaced the first letter of the man’s surname with an earlier-used consonant. Swearwords, even in our proudly informal age, have lost none of their power to offend or amuse. Last year, the Supreme Court earnestly discussed whether the Federal Communications Commission could punish broadcasters for “fleeting expletives”—words that “unexpectedly” arise during live conversation. For the moment, the court decided, the FCC can, though it was advised to reconsider its overall “indecency” policy.

One long-standing response to regulation and social censure has been to adopt an innocent expression and just change a letter or two. Norman Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, featured salty-tongued sailors saying “fug” and “fugging.” More recently, Syfy’s much-admired TV series Battlestar Galactica had swearers in space saying “frak” and “frakking.” (Today these words are more likely to evoke a method of getting at shale gas.) One can be even more direct with homophony. Generations of students have giggled in not-quite-innocent pleasure over Hamlet’s asking Ophelia: “Do you think I meant country matters?”

We can safely assume that humans have been both reveling in and claiming to be offended by language deemed “obscene” for as long as they have been talking. Or at the very least, as Melissa Mohr demonstrates in her intelligent and enjoyable new book, since Roman times, when there were already a variety of names for acts and body parts, from proper to very lewd (the guessable “cunnus” and “futuo”; the more obscure “landica” and “irrumo”). In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Ms. Mohr leads us on an often ear-boggling tour of verbal depravity, through the medieval and early-modern periods (via a fascinating analysis of scatological phrasing in early Bible translations) to the Victorian era and then our own time. She also makes a serious point, cutely captured in the book’s title. Our idea of “swearing” is irredeemably muddled—caught between the sacred, as in the taking of oaths (the title’s “Holy”), and the profane, as in the use of terms for evacuatory and erotic adventure (the title’s other word).

Read the rest at the Wall Street Journal.

19 January 2013

It’s a melancholy fate for any writer to become an eponym for all that he despised, but that is what happened to George Orwell, whose memory is routinely abused in unthinking uses of the adjective “Orwellian”. On Monday it is “Orwell Day”, the 63rd anniversary of his death. This year also marks the more pleasantly round number of 110 years since his birth (on 25 June), so there is a Radio 4 series about him forthcoming, and Penguin are reissuing his works, including a standalone edition of “Politics and the English Language” for 99p.

“Politics” is Orwell’s most famous shorter work, and probably the most wildly overrated of any of his writings. Much of it is the kind of crackpot screed against linguistic pet hates that anyone today might compose in a green-text email to the newspapers. So why do so many people still genuflect in its direction?

Read the rest at the Guardian.

18 December 2010

Green’s Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green (Chambers)
Guardian Style, by David Marsh & Amelia Hodsdon (Guardian Books)

After more than a decade’s labour, Jonathon Green, lexicographer of the subversive, has produced as fine a three-volume dictionary of slang as you would desire to piss upon. (1700: “excellent, first-rate.”) Like the OED, it is built on “historical principles”, with dates for citations, one of whose effects is to impress upon us the boisterous demotic creativity of our forebears, who were no less interested than we are in making up new ways to describe getting drunk. (1650: “Go to the scriveners and learn to make indentures.”) Continued →

26 January 2010

Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, edited by Christian Kay, Jane Roberts, Michael Samuels, & Irené Wotherspoon (Oxford)

How would a person in the early 1600s call someone an idiot? “Half-wit” is tempting, but it turns out to date from a century-and-a-half later. “Chucklehead” is no good either (1731), but “blockhead” (1549) is fine, as might be the beautiful “obstupefact” (1601). “Dunderwhelp” (1621) is pushing it, but you’ll be fine with “dullard” (1440), “blockhead” (1549), “idiot” itself (1375), or, of course, the classic “fool” (1275). If you are interested in nicer distinctions, decide whether you mean a “person of weak intellect” (“wattle-head”, 1613), a “crazy person” (“nidiot”, 1534-1613, or “moonling”, 1616), or a “confused, muddled person” (“mafflard”, 1450). Should you desire to reach further back into the past, before the advent even of “fool”, choose from Old English “sotman” or “unandgitfull”, among other treasures from the deep word-hoard. Continued →

21 August 2009

Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation, by David Denby (Picador)

In the miniature footsteps of Harry G Frankfurt’s On Bullshit comes another super-slender monolinguograph, with New Yorker film critic Denby expatiating on snarkiness, a mode of derisive humour. At least, that’s what I think it is. Denby has gone and made up his own definition: that snark is personal abuse. An American comic is quoted as saying: “Obama did great in February, and that’s because that was Black History Month. And now Hillary’s doing much better ’cause it’s White Bitch Month, right?” Snark, Denby cries. No: that’s just sheer dumb nastiness. Continued →

20 October 2007

The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?, by Deborah Cameron (Oxford)

Men and women, it has long been thought, speak in different ways. But curiously, people can’t quite agree on what the difference is. Deborah Cameron cites a 1777 passage by Lord Chesterfield:

Language is indisputably the more immediate province of the fair sex: there they shine, there they excel. The torrents of their eloquence, especially in the vituperative way, stun all opposition, and bear away, in one promiscuous heap, nouns, verbs, moods and tenses.

The giveaway here is the word “promiscuous”: Chesterfield’s theory of women’s language is informed by his fantasies about their sex lives. Let us note, however, that Shakespeare in As You Like It had Rosalind express the opposite stereotype, that women are incapable of aggressive speech: “Women’s gentle brain / Could not drop forth such giant-rude invention”. Whom to believe? Continued →

12 January 2006

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, by David Foster Wallace (Abacus)

David Foster Wallace doesn’t know when to stop. Reporting from a porn awards ceremony, or or John McCain’s campaign for the Republican nomination in 1999, he digresses more than he gresses. Interminable anecdotes jostle with impossibly minute descriptions of trivia, and vast footnotes rain littler footnotes until your eyes hurt. The style is familiar from his essayistic fiction, notably the creatively exhausting novel Infinite Jest. This book collects magazine articles that were first published, according to the copyright page, in “edited, heavily edited, or (in at least one instance) bowdlerized form”. Having suffered as Shakespeare did, our author now gives us the restored versions of his maximalist journalism. Continued →