Blog in 02 2011.
This week I got to contribute to a Guardian live Q&A session about how to write a brilliant CV and cover letter. It was a lively debate and there was a lot of good advice on offer. The best advice I gave was about not being a robot.
Last week, a few of us Writer types past and present sashayed along to a debate at the British Library called The Language Wars. It featured some duffer from the Queen’s English Society claiming English was going to hell in a handcart because people say ‘disinterested’ when they used to say ‘uninterested’ (I’m paraphrasing). And a man who’s written a book rightly saying ‘people have been saying English has been going to hell in a handcart for centuries. Well, it ain’t. Things change. Get over it.’ Or words to that effect.
Which is fine, if you just want a bit of knockabout. But it’s frustrating that it was riddled with subjective, unsubstantiated assertions, from the panel, the audience, and even the usually magnificent Libby Purves as chair. People talked about various aspects of language as ‘ugly’, ‘incorrect’, ‘graceless’, ‘American’. In most other disciplines, you wouldn’t get away with stuff like that without backing it up. There are thousands of academics around the world collecting data on how language actually works. They’ll investigate, for example, if a particular word or phrase really is American (so, do Americans use it more than Brits, say? Does it vary in different contexts? Did it really start in America?). But proper research-based linguistics rarely gets a look-in, so most public discussion of language is spectacularly ill-informed.
It felt slightly like going to an eighteenth century debate on medicine, with people arguing about exactly which imbalance of humours they felt were responsible for making women hysterical.
And it’s a shame, because there are great places to look if you want to know more about language without having to suffer some amateur’s wildly partial ramblings. Try books by the late, great Larry Trask. My hero April McMahon. David Crystal. Or the brilliant Language Log. All written by academics whose writing is entertaining and rigorous.
The good news for us at The Writer (and we have a few linguistics students in our gang) is that even a lightweight debate like that shows how much people care about language. How our words are so wrapped up with our identity that we are determined to vehemently defend our own tastes and castigate other people’s. It’s why language is an extraordinarily powerful tool, which businesses still undervalue and ignore at their peril.
(And by the way, thank heavens for rapper Dizraeli. He was the star of the panel, and was brilliantly eloquent, in sometimes satisfyingly non-standard English. He shut up many of the sticklers by asking how on earth they had time to get het up about supposedly ‘incorrect’ words that were perfectly clear in context. Pragmatics, that’s called in linguistics.)
Or so the saying goes. But when it comes to words about size, it’s the little one that counts. Big. You could say it’s the big daddy of size words.
A few years ago I wrote a couple of pages about ‘big’ in a book. Americans hate ‘big government’ was my starting point. But big’s not gone away. In fact, it’s got bigger.
A Blankety-Blank style poll of The Writer today came up with these big combos….Big picture. Big ideas. Big Brother. Big dipper. Big cheese. Big Sur. Big bananas. Big potatoes. Big Kahuna. Big belly. Big sleep. Big time. Big shop. Big Mac. Big Bertha. Big bang. Big foot. Big ‘ead. Big Easy. Big Issue. Big up.
It’s almost a poem, an Ode to Big. I was wondering about Big because it was another relaunch this week of David Cameron’s Big Society. It seems to me that this is an idea shaped by words. Behind it lies the imperative “we need a Big Idea” dreamed up by political party policy wonks. But there’s also a distancing from Margaret Thatcher’s belief: “There is no such thing as society.”
So I can understand why they got to the phrase ‘Big Society’. I suspect, though, that people’s real experiences will focus on big spending cuts and that will undermine the Big Society in a big way. Big. Such an innocent-looking little word. What’s big in your life?
I was helping a friend shop for a new pair of glasses at the weekend. And whilst walking through Covent Garden, we stumbled across this delightfully named place...
It just goes to show that you don't need to name a glasses shop after an attribute (like the speed or affordability of the service). A bit of frivilous fun can go a long way.