Beware the rampage of Zombie English

Calling opponents fascist, racist or sexist is the nuclear option, but teachers know the danger of clichés only too well

Joe Nutt


Most of us learn the dangers of using a cliché in school. We quickly get the message that tired and worn-out expressions have little effect from teachers who encourage us to be original and creative, and to find ways of expressing ourselves more successfully

That decades-old lesson is no longer being carried through to adult life. Zombie English is on the rampage, and schools need to kill it at birth. 

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In our currently febrile culture, social media software means clichés are manufactured and churned out on an industrial scale that 17th-century pamphleteers could only dream about. And something unpleasantly corrosive is happening to English as a result. The cliché has itself become a cliché, failing to describe a ubiquitous contemporary phenomenon. In its stead we have a raft of new mutations of our precious mother tongue. 

Nuclear option

Let’s start at the top. The nuclear option if you want to attack an opponent or abuse someone verbally is to pick one of these clichés: fascist, racist or sexist. This trio of unassuming little -ists has become so overtly weaponised that it’s almost impossible to defend yourself against them. 

They are selected and thrown at people not because they are clichés – which, if you consider how frequently and lazily they are deployed, they undoubtedly are. Instead, they are chosen because they will stick to the victim as irretrievably and devastatingly as a limpet mine. The people who use them do so because they want to mark an individual out as beyond human sympathy. They know that if enough people agree by sharing or “liking”, their limpet mine accusation will stick. 

Below the nuclear list is a second rank of words like gaslighting, extremist, bullying, toxic and dark, used not because they aptly describe anyone’s behaviour or action but because they, too, are clichéd shortcuts. These glib accusations trip off millions of keyboards so frequently Microsoft are probably thinking of providing a shortcut for them. 

The new witchcraft

Shortcuts, cosmetics, superficiality are the standard strategies of this new, weaponised lexicon. The Baroque pearl in this tawdry crown is the word inappropriate. Why waste time on reflection or analysis, detailed journalistic investigation or even something as tedious as a formal legal process when you can lay waste to an opponent or enemy with that one catch-all accusation? 

Inappropriate is the new witchcraft. I don’t care what they really did, or whether or not I saw them do it: someone else did. I’m not the only one who doesn’t like them. Everyone knows there’s something fishy about them. It’s a short and cowardly step from “no smoke without fire” to a public bonfire. 

The thing we’ve all been missing, the seismic cultural shift new technology has ushered in, is something fundamental to all our lives. Language itself has been commandeered by that tiny minority who ardently seek power and influence. 

Spreading contagion

Politicians and the politically motivated media differ from the rest of humanity in their single-minded pursuit of these two things above all else. Most of us are happy to exert a little authority or influence others, within the rational confines of our familial and professional networks. But their ambition knows no such bounds. Their voice must reverberate across the whole nation. They need millions to play by their rules.

Technology has orchestrated and extended their reach and the volume of their increasingly hysterical declarations. Steeped in the argot of politics and pseudo-scientific social studies, they know only too well how to embellish the insults and allegations they must continually craft, in order to assert themselves and diminish their opponents. 

Their behaviour has infected and spread contagion across the entire linguistic landscape. It scars teenagers fretting over climate change and members of the general public caught on camera in a street interview. Zombie words have spread like an invisible plague across the entire English-speaking world. 

Witness the barely supressed, frothing rage of those who have lost power. It’s no accident that some of the most rabid, anti-Brexit voices emanate from figures who used to wield real power, real influence. Watch them performing in front of a camera and you can’t fail to be struck by the wide-eyed incredulity they all share. You can see the ferocity of their impotence visibly eating them up from the inside. 

A plague out of control

This Zombie English plague is out of control, and schools need to wrest control of the English language back from the misshapen few who have commandeered it.

The canary in this linguistic coal mine is another four-letter word. A word that has been so successfully corrupted that its hideous new shape has effectively changed the world we all live in. We are less free than we were.

Hate has mutated almost overnight from a rare human emotion to a serious crime. Those of you who regularly remind your children that the irrational reaction they exhibit every time a green vegetable appears on their dinner plate is not hatred, and those who pull the word hate back off the tip of an emotional tongue when confronted with an irritating celebrity, on the TV or the radio, will probably be surprised to find the Metropolitan Police offering you this advice:

A hate crime is defined as 'Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person's race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.'

Perception is all that matters. Inappropriate witchcraft is now legally sanctioned. Thought really has become a crime, courtesy not of Big Brother, but putrid English. English so rotten and decayed it has had pandemic consequences, crippling the intellect of academics in centuries-old universities and Silicon Valley executives, equally effectively. 

If we want to start clawing our way back to linguistic health and vitality, to a place where adults live by the lessons they learned in school about the dangers of clichés, perhaps what we need is a new way to recognise and dismiss them. The next time you see someone using language in this corrosively infectious fashion, name and shame it by the ugly tag it deserves: Zombie English. 

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and the author several books about the poetry of Donne, Milton and Shakespeare. His new book, The Point of Poetry, was published in March by Unbound. He tweets @joenutt_author

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