Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[114] It’s only words, and words are all I have

5 Comments

I make no apologies for putting in a sort of epilogue about language after all my other blogs. I am intrigued with our Language, its origins, its rich variations and the way it changes. It is not going to be easy to give a feel of how language was different fifty or more years ago. Many of the changes have been very gradual. This is a very personal view of some of those changes.

But first, I will go back a bit.

The Bible

As you know, some of my fond memories of the Church and religion in my early days are associated with the archaic and stylistic language of the Bible and the hymns and prayers we used to use. It’s not just the use of ‘Thou’ and ‘Thee’ with word endings like ‘sayest’ and ‘doeth.’

One of my favourite examples comes just before the Magnificat, when Mary was visited by an angel. (It was an unusual greeting. The angel didn’t say, “Hi, Mary,” he said, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”)

For her response, Luke didn’t say, “Mary was surprised,” or “She was like: What the …” He said,

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying,

and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

[Luke 1:29 Authorized Version, about 1600]

Here are some modern equivalents.

  • She was greatly agitated at his words, and wondered what such a greeting meant [Weymouth Bible (1903)]
  • But she was deeply troubled by what he said and wondered what this greeting might mean. [New English Bible (1970)]
  • Mary was deeply troubled by the angel’s message, and she wondered what his words meant. [The Good News Translation, formerly the Good News Bible or Today’s English Version (1976, American)]

They don’t quite have the same aura of wonder and respect.

Anyway, I digress. (I’ve been doing it for three years so I’m not stopping now.)

Shakespeare

Although William Shakespeare (around 1600) introduced many words to the English language that we now use all the time, his plays still use many obsolete words and use old ways of speaking and can be incomprehensible at times.

When the eponymous Hamlet speaks the words,

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?”

We can still work out that he is actually saying, “Shall I kill myself?” but it gets more difficult to follow when it goes on:

“ … For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of th’ unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life …”

I wouldn’t like to give a modern day version of that speech. (OK, I admit it. I passed all my GCE “O” Levels – except English Literature.)

Jane Austen

When we get to Jane Austen (about 1815) we find that the words are more or less familiar and the language is almost modern but people speak in a way that is decidedly old-fashioned. It’s more formal.

In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet says to Mr Darcy, in language that would now seem very convoluted,

“From the very beginning – from the first moment, I may almost say – of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

And his speech is equally lengthy.

“I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding— certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of other so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever.”

Of course in those days speech was formal, so much so that we have to look very hard to find that Mr Darcy even had a first name. It occurs twice in the book. He was certainly never addressed by it as a name. Mr and Mrs Bennet and many other characters exist only as surnames.

Victorian England

[We think of the Victorians as English. I don’t know how they viewed the United Kingdom but I think they would have thought of themselves as British. They still had India and the British Empire.]

We can blame a lot of our modern grammar and spelling on the Victorians. They formalized some of the rules that pedantic linguists thrive on. They had rules like not ending sentences with prepositions. (Oops! I just did.) They made the rules about apostrophes and redefined some spellings the way they thought they should be. Words like ‘debt’ and ‘subtle’ had lost their silent letters. The Victorians put them back to make them fit their Classical origins.

(While people argue about ‘a hotel’ or ‘an hotel’ and it is seen as uncouth to pronounce many words without an initial ‘H’ sound it’s worth noting that none of these words actually came directly from the Latin form when the ‘H’ was significant. They all come via French and had long lost this sound before they reached us.)

Mr Adlam

I am going to go back to Mr Adlam at Highlands School to show you that some changes were already underway. Language change can be slow and school may be one of the forces trying to make it slower.

Some of the things I remember from Mr Adlam are these.

  • Never use contracted forms like: don’t, can’t, would’ve … in written English. You will have noticed that I now completely ignore this rule. I produced quite a lot of formal documents when I worked and I have pretty well ignored this rule for at least twenty years. Now avoiding these contractions makes a document look overly formal.
  • Never use ‘got.’ This is quite complicated but the problem is that informal or slang American usage is ‘got’ where we would say ‘have got.’ While “I’ve got something here” is correct, “I got something” doesn’t fit the grammatical models. My comment here is that when English as a foreign language is taught abroad it is often American English. I have seen references where such teachers were instructed not to ‘correct’ American usage such as ‘I did got’ for ‘I did have’ or ‘I had.’
  • Watch out for the American pronunciation coming across the Atlantic with glottal stops instead of ‘T’ sounds.

I think you could sum these up by saying that informality and Americanization were coming our way. Both of these predictions were true. Now that we have automatic grammar and spelling checks as I write it is noticeable that changes have been faster than the software can manage. When I do a full style check I reject most of the suggestions as being too pedantic or old-fashioned.

Style and formality

We were also taught to use strictly correct grammar and spelling. But this changed somewhere around the Seventies with changing ideas in schools. Ideas and intelligibility were considered to be more important than mere spelling or accuracy. Even in subjects like English or French, answers were no longer marked as wrong just because the spelling or grammar was wrong.

Also now we have the ability for anyone to write their own documentation without the opportunity for trained secretaries or typists to correct simple mistakes. I have seen very high level managers issuing important documents with glaring mistakes.

I have already written about Formality particularly the ways we addressed and greeted people. I remember the first time I went to a shoe shop on my own. I must have been about fourteen. The shop assistant called me ‘Sir’ every time he spoke to me. That was the way we expected to be spoken to. (Another sentence ending in a preposition!)

When we first had supermarkets the assistants said little. I remember the surprise in French lessons when told that in French shops you were greeted with ‘Bonjour’ and you left to ‘Au revoir.’ Much later we had ‘Good Morning’ in UK supermarkets. When this changed to ‘Hello’ I felt mildly insulted at the informality. When it became ‘Hi’ I was shocked. (I still can’t cope with cold callers on the telephone who say ‘How are you today?’ That’s a very personal question from someone I don’t know. I do what I always do with such callers – say nothing and put the telephone down.)

Chat

Context is important. We have always tried to say that written language should have a different style to spoken language but now we have messaging, texting and chat areas in on-line games. Here the language is written but is far less formal than even normal spoken conversation.

I write a lot in chat for computer games. It took me months to realize that I would still be understood if I missed out the final full stop. Then I stopped bothering with capital letters, left out question marks and generally abandoned all punctuation … apart from the use of three dots … Now I unashamedly use words like ‘gonna’, ‘wanna’ … (I still flinch mentally when I hear ‘wanna’ and correct it in my mind to a clear ‘want to.’)

I see others writing with very inaccurate use of spelling in chat but it doesn’t matter. I can understand what they mean. Some people still think that ‘would’ve’ is ‘would of.’ Maybe we will eventually spell it that way.

New and Changed Words

Ok, so let’s look at some words we have that someone from the Fifties would not understand, either new words or old ones with new meanings. I won’t attempt to list them all, I’ll just make some general comments.

  • Technology – There are many new and changed words relating to the new technological advances and new products. I made a list over fifteen years ago and some of these have already come and gone. Young people today may not have seen a computer ‘mouse’ or a ‘video’ or ‘fax’ machine! We have lots of new words that someone in the Fifties would not have understood because the concepts did not exist – mobile, tablet, icon, download, streaming, blender, drone …
  • We have items of clothing that did not exist then – gilet, anorak, hoodie, tights, snood, chinos …
  • Almost all of what we eat and drink is new – cappuccino, yoghurt, qinoa, tiramisu, …
  • Things we do (bunjee jumping, mugging, chilling …)
  • Places we go (supermarket, disco …)

Fewer

I am going to say something now that not everyone will agree with. (Another sentence ending in a preposition!) When I was young nobody used the word ‘fewer.’ The opposite of ‘more’ was ‘less,’ whether used with countable or uncountable nouns. (We think of ‘more’ as the comparative form of ‘many’ or of ‘much.’ In the same way ‘less’ is the comparative of ‘little’ or of ‘few.’)

There came a time when supermarkets tried to help their queueing process with a separate checkout for those with, ‘Five items or less.’ Marks and Spencer, in their wisdom, insisted on ‘Five items or fewer’ for their notices. I think this sparked a trend to the modern use of ‘fewer,’ taken up by those pedantic about language. Now television reporters and newspapers have adopted it because they don’t want to appear uneducated. I think they are wrong. I stick to ‘less.’

Here is what Wiktionary says on the subject.

“Some regard the use of the determiner less with quantities to be incorrect, stating that less should indicate only a reduction in size or significance, leaving fewer to indicate a smaller quantity … In typical usage this distinction is absent, and less has been widely understood and commonly used as a synonym for fewer since it first appeared in Old English as ‘læs.”

Political Correctness

Many changes have come through feminism and the desire for political correctness. We used to use words like ‘actress’, ‘manageress’, ‘conductress’ to distinguish women from men in a way that was not at all pejorative but now this usage has become undesirable. Words that seemed to imply men rather than women have also disappeared. When we used to say ‘chairman’ or ‘spokesman’ we now say ‘chair’ or ‘spokesperson.’ (I remember women who were quite happy to be addressed as Madam Chairman.) Workers of indeterminate gender have become ‘operatives.’ And, of course, in the Fifties, no one questioned the use of Mrs or Miss where now the term is generally Ms.

I can’t understand all the changes but those we used to call ‘coloured’ (because we thought ‘black’ was pejorative) are now called ‘black.’ Those we called ‘Indians’, ‘Red Indians’ or ‘Redskins’ are now ‘Native Americans’. ‘Eskimos’ have become ‘Inuit.’

Slang

We have familiar terms and slang expressions that we may just use in family circles. Some of these have spread to general use. It’s as if the people who try to sell us things want to appear like close friends.

One example is the word ‘kid,’ for a child. We might have referred to children in our close family as kids but we would never presume to do so for other people’s children. Shops sold Menswear, Womenswear and Childrenswear. Gradually the word has spread and now clothes come in kids’ sizes, food comes in kids’ portions. In a retail context the word ‘children’ has disappeared.

Other slang terms have come in via abbreviations. We used words like ‘television’, ‘photograph’, ‘examination’, ‘aeroplane’, ‘telephone’ and ‘University.’ Now we have ‘TV’, ‘photo’, ‘exam’, ‘plane’, ‘phone’ and ‘Uni’. [Yes, I do mean ‘aeroplane’, not ‘airplane’. One is English, one is American.]

I went to University as did most of those I knew at school. It was not until over fifteen years later, when the Australian series ‘Neighbours’ first appeared, that I first hear the word ‘Uni’.

In youth culture there seems to be a tendency sometimes to use words in unusual ways to confuse the older generations. But eventually the adults catch up and use the same slang terms. Another thing Mr Adlam taught us was to try to avoid the vague word ‘nice’ for something we liked. It has largely been replaced by the word ‘cool,’ originally part of youth culture.

Americanization

The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language,’ is generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw in the Forties although several similar claims have been made by others. We both call it English but there are many differences.

(For those interest in language the main differences are in vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation. The other notable difference is in the use of singular or plural verbs for a noun representing a collection of people. We might say that ‘Manchester United are playing Chelsea today’ when Americans might use the word ‘is’.)

Increasing communication and, in particular, television and films, have led to a tendency for American usage to prevail in ways that are too slow for people to notice. While we used to talk of going to see a ‘film’ the almost universal term now is ‘movie’. ‘Cinemas’ are becoming ‘theatres.’ Sometimes now we talk of ‘apartments’ instead of ‘flats.’

When it comes to new words it still happens that the United Kingdom and the USA pick different words for new things and the differences generally remain. While stockings have been replaced by ‘tights’ here, America still has ‘pantyhose.’ While America has ‘Automated Teller Machines’ (ATM) we have ‘cash machines’, ‘cashpoints’ or ‘holes-in-the wall.’ We have ‘cling-film,’ where Wikipedia tells me it’s called ‘plastic wrap’ in the US.

Changes in pronunciation may be copies from American usage, or may be a similar laziness creeping into our language. The American habit of not pronouncing medial ‘T’ became obvious with the emergence of what they call the ‘Inner-net’ and traditional Britons would call the ‘Internet’. While this usage is not yet universal here it is beginning to take place – noticeable in words like ‘twenty’ which is rapidly becoming ‘twenny’.

Similarly there are changes with the pronunciation of ‘U’ sounds losing the English style ‘Y’ sound which often precedes. ‘News’ for example is increasingly often pronounced ‘nooze’ rather than ‘nyooze’.

The change I dislike most about Americanization is with the words ‘billion’, ‘trillion’ etc. When I was a boy a billion was a million million (and 1 000 000 000 was a thousand million.)

We never really talked about such large numbers so to most people it didn’t matter. Now we have to use large numbers to talk about the UK economy and the American usage has been adopted. We now have a National Debt of about 1.5 trillion pounds sterling or £1 500 000 000 000. I would have called this figure 1.5 billion. (It’s a lot however you say it.) You will note my use of the pound sign (£), which was universal for our currency and could be done on a typewriter. Keyboards have changed, we now use the Euro sign (€) and often now resort to GBP for our pounds!

Reduced Spelling

As laziness creeps in and pronunciation continues to degenerate, particularly for longer words, there has been a recent trend for spelling to reflect actual punctuation. Now it is not unknown to see ‘gonna’ written for ‘going to’ and ‘wanna; for ‘want to’. We even now have the word ‘wannabe’ for ‘(those who) want to be’. Back in the Fifties speech was probably just as lax as today but writing did not reflect this.

Similarly, back then, anything printed followed the conventions of grammar which we used to be taught then. Names and titles always started with capital letters (and names were made of letters, not typographical symbols). Abbreviations used full stops to show that they were abbreviations such as ‘Mr.’ ‘Dr.’ ‘B.A.’ Now we have far too many abbreviations and acronyms to worry about such things.

Names of Places

Changes here are due to changes in spelling style and changes promulgated from the countries concerned, perhaps associated with political correctness. In the Fifties, Beijing was known as Peking, Mumbai was Bombay, Kolkota was Calcutta and Myanmar was Burma. Many other cities and countries of the World have changed their names. Some changes have just affected pronunciation. The country of Kenya now pronounced ‘Kenn-ya’ used to be ‘Keen-ya’.

 

Anachronisms

The media of television and cinema are very good at research for set design. Programmes and films set in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties generally get their street scenes and house decorations almost perfect. But without people like me to advise them they are not so good at expressions. I often spot people saying things they would not have said. (If you weren’t there it’s hard to know.)

I should have been taking notes of these but the only one I can remember from recently is someone saying ‘numeric dyslexia’ back in the Fifties. The word ‘dyslexia’ may have existed then in psychological circles but the general public would not have used thus word. The idea of numeric dyslexia was even later.

 

Idioms

So much of our language is based on sayings, often with no literal meaning, and these expressions come and go. Every day I see people using expressions that are either new or changed. It’s not that we would not have understood. We just would not have said it like that. I assume that many of them came to us via popular television but this begs the question of how they got there.

So, in no particular order here are some.

  • ‘In no particular order’ – This comes from the slow reveal process when TV shows reveal who has been eliminated.
  • ‘Sick as a parrot’ – From Football journalism.
  • ‘Bit and bobs’ – We used to say ‘bits and pieces.’
  • ‘Odds and sods’ – Ditto: ‘odds and ends.’
  • ‘Roller-coaster of emotions’ – We just never had the intrusive journalism that asks such questions.
  • ‘No way’ – an American import.
  • ‘Whatever’ – meaning ‘It doesn’t matter’ in a pejorative sense.
  • ‘I’m good’ – This one needs an explanation. It was absolutely clear when I was young that when someone asked how you were you could say, ‘I’m well, thanks,’ but you should never say. ‘I’m good.’ That would mean that you were saying you were a good person in a way that was very un-British. I always used to say ‘I’m fine,’ which was also acceptable. Somehow ‘I’m good’ has become acceptable in the last few years.
  • ‘So much’ – meaning even more than ‘very much.’
  • ‘Engage with’ – This now seems to mean the process of talking to someone or dealing with them in a sympathetic way that implies understanding and good intentions. It’s one of several expressions that have emerged in general use after their introduction in business circumstances.
  • ‘Yeah, no’ – is the new meaningless expression. We used to be told to avoid ‘um’ or ‘er’ in interviews or important meetings. They were noises that people made when they were deciding what to say next. I don’t know about general use but in interviews on television now we just get repeated ‘yeah …’ or the even more meaningless ‘yeah, no…’
  • ‘Like’ – Again I could write much on this. When I was young ‘like’ was a preposition (as in, ‘a damson is like a plum.’) but there was a tendency coming from the USA to use it as a conjunction (as in, ‘do it like I do.’) There has been a form of slang, originating in California High Schools a few years ago that uses ‘I was like …’ to mean almost anything. It can mean, ‘I said …’ ‘I thought …’ ‘I decided …’ @I started to …’ … Sadly, it seems to have crept almost everywhere now into general use.

There was a song called ‘Words’ by the Bee Gees, released in 1968, that and ended with the repeated lyrics:

It’s only words, and words are all I have

                                                                        To take your heart away …                         

 

 

Thanks for reading. It has been fun. Over a hundred blogs and 200 000 words.

If you like my blog please share it to your friends. The picture above from the early Sixties shows my class at Ilford County High School. One of them is me. (I’m the good-looking one.)

 

 

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

5 thoughts on “[114] It’s only words, and words are all I have

  1. Thank you once again Alan for an interesting read. I do think that language notwithstanding local dialects and idioms depends on very much as to where one lived/lives and which school one went to. The word ‘fewer’ isn’t synonymous with ‘ less’. Less is used for quantity in the main where fewer is used in a different context not because it isn’t equally correct but because that is how strange the English language is. For instance I think fewer people may use the word fewer but there are fewer people who use English in the form that it was spoken in say the sixties. As you say each era has its vocabulary. As with everything else whether it’s all getting better or worse is a matter of conjecture! Phew !

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  2. Just one of many examples which I meant to include to emphasise the point that ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ are not interchangeable.
    e.g ‘there is less milk in this bottle than yesterday’ You can’t say ‘ there is fewer milk in this bottle than yesterday’. And as Alan would say … you can say it…. but you’d be wrong! Thank you again for such an interesting topic.

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  3. Thank you very much, Alan, for the really enjoyable, nostalgic blogs. They mirror so many of my experiences, especially Mr. Adlam, whose brilliance blessed so many of us.
    I spotted you in the first row at ICHS and wondered if Colin Keene-Carey was on the left of your row?

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