tag: Language

Jul 2007

I've waited for years to use it…

D: … but what about Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand?
jim: Sorry, but I just can’t take anything seriously that’s named after a 50s B-movie.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2007

The language of the internet

Forgive this trivial rant, but I really hate the use of the word “forums” as the plural of forum. I mean, come on folks, “fora” is a great word! Yet you get weird looks for using it, as though celebrating the richness, beauty and plain weirdness of language was something to look down upon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not someone who strives to preserve anachronism for its own sake, but replacing something pleasing and a little unusual with something dull and familiar seems to me an entirely legitimate thing to oppose (leastways during the replacement process… afterwards what’s the point? You just get the weird looks). There are those, of course, who defend the word “forums” for those very reasons… it’s familiar, it’s easy, it’s uncomplicated, they say.

Bah! May as well be O’Brien extolling the virtues of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

And the principles of Newspeak are one hundred percent applicable in the forums / fora case. By stripping ‘fora’ from our language, we have narrowed, very slightly, the paths tread by our consciousness. Whenever I heard or used the word “fora” it sparked several instantaneous thought-images every single time. The only word like it that we hear from time to time is “flora”. Which, to me anyway, calls to mind the phrase ‘flora and fauna’. On top of that, the slight oddness of the word forces my mind to consider it as a word. I’m immediately thinking about language itself and its lovely quirks. I’m also transported momentarily to Christian Brothers Latin classes and then further back to ancient Rome.

This all happens in an instant of course, and passes as I hear or use the next words. But for that instant there’s a myriad possibilities to be explored and considered. That doesn’t happen when I read or use the word “forums”. I don’t think of flowers, or of the magnificence of language, or of ancient Rome. All of which – of course – is explained at the end of Orwell’s novel…

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted for once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words […] Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

George Orwell – The Principles of Newspeak

All the same, exposure to the internet has dulled my objection to “forums”. Indeed, now I find myself using it. Occasionally with a slight sense of regret… and the regret will itself call to mind an echo of those pleasing thought-images. But usually just as a matter of routine. Those moments of regret will become fewer and eventually disappear altogether. Because once a word like “forums” has become the de facto standard, attempting to resist it by using the now anachronistic “fora” just makes you look a bit of a twit.

So this is not a call for a return of “fora”. Instead it’s a warning, lest this tendency to boil the English language down to some homogeneous convenient mulch continue further. Resist it, dear reader.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jun 2006

Chris Moyles is, like, soooo gay

I have quite a few friends who are gay or bi. In fact, for a goodly chunk of my late teens / early twenties my closest friend was gay (the bassist in the band I mentioned in a previous post as it happens). So despite being straight myself, I’ve been on a number of Gay Pride marches and I’ve always been pretty sensitive to homophobia, whether in the media or the world around me.

At the same time, however, I believe there’s sometimes an over-sensitivity to perceived prejudice, whether it’s racism, sexism, ageism or homophobia. This is completely understandable, and I am not levelling criticism here. Groups within society who are on the receiving end of genuine prejudice will inevitably develop heightened sensitivities towards the language used to speak about them. It is a natural defence mechanism, and to expect any different is unrealistic.

So when BBC dj Chris Moyles used the word “gay” on air to mean “rubbish”, there was a predictable backlash. Now, far be it for me to defend Chris Moyles. The little I know about the man suggests that he’s an arsehole. His on-air persona is infused with the “humour” of FHM and Heat magazine. New-laddism (also known as “wankerism”). This isn’t surprising; he’s obviously aiming at the same (depressingly large) demographic. And while fans of the free market will praise him to the roof for supplying the content to meet a demand. Me? I just see it as another nail in the coffin of western culture. Plus, a couple of years back he crossed a picket-line at the BBC. And that’s guaranteed to get my hackles up.

You just don’t cross picket lines. Ever*.

But leaving aside the separate issue of Moyles’ arseholeishness; was his use of the word “gay” homophobic? And here I have to agree with the BBC’s board of governors who dismissed the allegation. I don’t believe it was.

Language changes. And in the modern world of mass-mediation this process has accelerated so that it now occurs at a dizzying rate. There’s an entire generation alive today for whom the word “gay” meant “happy” for a significant portion of their life. And this isn’t a trivial point, because if you look at where this most recent redefinition of the word (gay = rubbish) comes from, it’s the schoolyards. It’s a generational thing. Shifts in language often are. It was the youth of the 50s who shifted “cool” from being a description of temperature into an expression of approval. In the 60s “heavy” changed meaning rather dramatically as did many other words (“gay” among them).

And as the language of youth evolved, so necessarily does the language of those speaking to the youth (dj’s and what have you).

It is clearly true that the root of this switch (gay = rubbish) derives from anti-homosexual sentiment. But the homophobia of the schoolyard is different to that in the world at large. I’m not saying it’s harmless (it isn’t!) but it is different. When I was in primary school, a common insult was “Your mother is a lezzer!” As a nine year old I used the phrase myself (I was bullied at school, the way quiet over-intelligent kids often are, and would respond – usually while blinking away tears – with whatever taunts were doing the rounds at the time). In truth though, I hadn’t the faintest idea what “a lezzer” was. Could I possibly have been being homophobic despite not knowing what homosexuality was?

Similarly, I am convinced that today’s kids – whilst infinitely more sophisticated than I was at their age – do not see any connotations of homosexuality when they describe another kid’s trainers as “gay”. They probably understand homosexuality to a degree, and are aware what “gay” means in that context, but will see it as an entirely separate usage of the word when using it to describe trainers or a car or whatever.


1. Disabled so that movement, especially walking, is difficult or impossible: Lame from the accident, he walked with a cane. A lame wing kept the bird from flying.

2. Marked by pain or rigidness: a lame back.

3. Weak and ineffectual; unsatisfactory: a lame attempt to apologize; lame excuses for not arriving on time.

Right now the dictionary definition of “gay” does not include an analogue to definition 3 (above). But I suspect one day soon it will do. There can be little doubt that when “lame” began to be used to mean “weak” or “rubbish” (as it often is nowadays) it was connected to disability. But how many people today – straight or gay – if using the phrase “that’s just so lame!” are being consciously prejudiced against the disabled?

* Yes, yes, yes. I’m sure you can describe extreme hypothetical situations involving doctors and dying children where crossing a picket line may be morally justified. However, anyone who tries to shoehorn the presenting of a lowbrow Radio 1 programme by Chris Moyles into such a category will receive a personal visit from me and The Bastid Squad.

21 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2006

A problem with pronouns

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
Albert Einstein

This is one of my favourite quotations. I believe it expresses an important truth. On occasion, however, I have seen a subtly amended version…

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. Those to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, are as good as dead: their eyes are closed.
Albert Einstein

See the difference? Some would say that the revisionists are falling prey to “political correctness”. Trouble is; I tend to find that those who use the term ‘political correctness gone mad‘ or use a tone of dismissive derision when uttering the acronym ‘P.C.’ are actually people who have precisely zero understanding of the deeper issues involved (for instance the impact that a gender bias in language can have on a culture).

Some – indeed most – of the actual instances of “politically correct policy” are of course ludicrous. But that’s because they tend to be implemented by power-crazed petty tyrants who themselves have but a slender grasp of the issue. This does not mean there isn’t a discussion to be had regarding the ways in which language can affect culture and whether there might not be steps to be taken that would neutralise the more negative of those effects.

But there’s a few things that need to be said regarding this particular kind of revisionism. Firstly; the amended version of the Einstein quote, with the gender specificity removed, doesn’t sound right. For all intents and purposes the meaning hasn’t changed, but the sound of the words is clumsier. Stilted even. When compared to the original, it’s really not very satisfactory.

Secondly; Einstein was writing in German, and in the 1920s. Any misguided attempt to “update” his language will most likely end up like a badly-colourised version of The Big Sleep or one of those ludicrous bibles in contemporary English. It runs the risk of obscuring the meaning by focussing attention on obviously incongruous phrasing. Not what you want at all really.

Thirdly; while nobody would claim that Einstein deliberately used masculine pronouns to indicate that he was only talking about men; nonetheless any amendment is making assumptions. It sets a very dangerous precedent. The removal of the masculine pronouns doesn’t appear to change the underlying meaning of the quote… but that view is itself a product of a time and place. The impulse to strip such a quotation of its gender specificity, based on the belief that the specificity was not intended, is clearly a culturally-determined attitude.

To engage in that kind of revisionism, therefore, is to give tacit support to other; perhaps less benign; culturally-determined revisionism. Reaching back into the past and amending the words of historical figures to better reflect modern values is an extremely dangerous activity, and even the most timid and well-intentioned steps onto such a slippery slope should be resisted at all costs.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2006

Naet huh?

Acocdrnig to rseecrah at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deson’t mttaer in waht oredr the lteters in a wrod aeappr, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbemls. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.

I wnedor if it’s the smae for dlsyecixs?

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2006

New meme

Via PigDogFecker (as we in Ireland would say), who cites d-squared, comes this lovely idea…

If I started using the term “anti-Semitic” as a general term of undifferentiated disapprobation like “lame” or “gay” (as in “god, those trainers are pretty anti-Semitic”, “The first few series of Friends were quite sharp and funny, but it got really lazy and anti-Semitic toward the end”, “I don’t know; there’s nothing specific about Shoreditch that I don’t like — it’s just a bit anti-Semitic”), how long do you think it would take to catch on? And what sort of reaction would I get in the meantime?

Well I like it.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme