No, it doesn’t make sense. Let me explain …
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a television programme about the assassination of President Kennedy. A clip of original footage from 1963 showed an interviewer, in Britain, stopping passers-by, seeking their views. Doing ‘vox pops’, as they’re called nowadays. From the Latin, ‘vox populi,’ meaning voice of the people.
Filmed in black and white, in a drab city street, the interviewees were serious-looking, well-dressed adults. Men in hats, women with shopping bags over their arms. All wearing coats to their knees. The kind of people you see in 1940s films, like ‘Brief Encounter’. Or The Third Man (my favourite old film).
But there was something very unusual about the people in these interviews, to ears more used to contemporary vox-pops.
These were the kind of people often referred to as, ‘ordinary decent, working-class folk’.
And, what stuck out like a sore, red thumb among the black, white and grey was … the way they spoke.
Not their accents, but the words they used.
They used Big Words.
A few mornings later, over breakfast, we were listening to the radio – BBC radio – when the reporter used the word ‘coruscating’ before moving on to talk about a ‘modus operandi’.
It was unusual enough that the two of us stopped with our spoons (porridge with added raisins and cinnamon) part way to our mouths.
‘Blimey,’ I said, not being very articulate at 6.45 am.
The absent-minded professor nodded and raised his eyebrows.
We listen to ‘Today’ each morning as we drink our early-morning cuppas. Aired between 6 am and 9 am, it’s the programme the media, politicians and businesspeople can’t afford to ignore.
Financial results announcements and political press releases are timed to ensure coverage. It holds leaders to account, probes business news, reports scientific breakthroughs. It’s not unknown for the Prime Minister to be grilled in the big-hitter slot, just after eight o’clock.
All this makes it doubly – triply – disturbing that we were so shocked to hear a reporter use the word ‘coruscating.’
Words can, of course, be used to exclude us. Or to obscure what’s being said. Sometimes it’s intentional – and sometimes not. Academics are among the worst offenders.
This morning I had to look up ‘ontological’ for the umpteenth time. It’s such a nebulous word that I can never quite pin it down. I’m sure people use it just because they, themselves, don’t really know what they mean.
Or perhaps because they do know what they mean, but they think it sounds too simple.
But back to the radio.
I’m wondering how it’s happened, this ‘reduction’ of popular language.
As one who grew up to value words and meanings, to understand their usage so that other people would understand me in turn, I find it perplexing. Bamboozling. Depressing.
One of the things I love about Liverpool – widely regarded as a non-conformist kind of place, but not particularly associated with erudition despite several rather good higher education establishments – is a sign near the city centre.
Anyone driving to a match at one of the two big football grounds will see it.
The sign reads ‘football stadia’. Not stadiums, stadia.
The BBC no longer lets its presenters do the plural thing with stadium. Or forum. Or any of those ummy words. But Liverpool does it.
Latin, I do realise, is far from being a familiar language to most people. But we used to say things like memoranda, not so very long ago, without too much trouble.
And then there’s phenomenon/phenomena, criterion/criteria – I never did Greek and I can handle that, it’s not that tough.
If you read stuff, listen to stuff, you get the hang of it.
In all the debate about dumbing down – which I usually ignore, assuming things are just different, not dumber – I never noticed quite how obvious this simplification of language had become.
Not until I saw those articulate, well-dressed, well-mannered people, back in black-and-white television-land, speaking like – there’s no other way of putting it – well-educated people.
A recent article in the New Scientist discussed research that shows we understand and remember better if we learn to write by hand rather than by typing. That we remember more and have a more in-depth understanding of what we’re reading if we read a book as opposed to an electronic device.
Do we need to be concerned?
What use is memory if everything’s instantly look-up-able?
Why use long words, long sentences, if no one understands or remembers them?
So here we are. Shorter words. Shorter sentences. Shorter paragraphs. (Yes, I’ve adapted to all that).
Shorter books (not yet), shorter attention spans. Sorry? What was that?
It makes me wonder, will we all talk binary, one day, because anything else is just too hard?