Bridget Brown goes in search of le mot juste
Yesterday I had a thought-provoking bus ride. A group of people got on and, for one reason or another, set about abusing the bus driver. Their language was limited to about four words of the f*** and c*** variety, and continued for the whole journey.
The frail, elderly Irishwoman next to me could stand it no longer.
"it's disgusting, their language is, so it is," she said. "Fairy Liquid's too good for washing their mouths out. The buggers need it done and with bloody bleach!" I mention this because I've noticed recently that the linguistic standards of the elderly seem to be slipping. My mother now says damn, when a few years ago her worst word was dash. Where, I wonder, will it all end? What will be acceptable in 10 years' time?
Acceptability apart, it's the dullness of the constant use of what is now euphemistically called "strong language" that is so tiresome. Those television programmes billed as containing it often turn out to be mind-numbingly boring because of the constant repetition of the same old adjectives. Actually, it's the same with ordinary, everyday, inoffensive speech, too. It's become mired in soap-culture language.
But with the help of the literacy hour, I reckon we could all be looking forward to an exciting future, linguistically speaking.
It's the word level work. You know, "How many words can you find that mean big?" Enthusiastic eight-year-olds look up big in the thesaurus and come up with anything from vast to gargantuan. Then they shove a few words together and produce ginormasaurus or hugiffic, which they use in every possible piece of writing for the next three weeks. William Shakespeare and Roald Dahl did it. Why shouldn't they?
Then there are the fashionable words. Especially those that have their meaning changed. As in, "It would be really cool to go to the Amazon rainforest." Well no, it would't, in fact. But it might be fabulous or exotic.
What happened to splendid, wizard, superb, funky, t'riffic or that word I heard in France a hundred times a day as a teenager, formidable?
The trouble is, we forget one and go on to the next. They date us, these "in" words, and that's a pity, because we really could do with using all of them, old and new meanings, all mixed up.
Imagine how curious, enthralling, intriguing and unpredictable our conversation would become. People wouldn't know if we thought the Dome was awful or aweful. In 15 years' time, scriptwriters, having been brought up on word level work, will use such varied vocabulary that we oldies will have to watch soaps with a dictionary on our lap in order to make sense of it all.
As for the swear words, true creativity is what is required. I've been trying to develop this since I was thoroughly insulted by a six-year-old who shouted at me, "You . . . you . . . Fungus Bogeyman!" When you next have need of an expletive, instead of counting to 10, try making up a completely new word. Think of it as your word level work. It takes practice, of course.
Picture yourself on a Monday evening. After a long day, you know you just have time to dash home before returning to school for a meeting explaining the benefits of the numeracy hour to parents. It's raining and you're in a long queue nearing traffic lights. Suddenly, steam issues from the bonnet of your car and you jam on the brakes. The driver behind runs into the back of you.
Now think carefully. . .
Tut? Zounds? Pshaw? S'death? No? Yes? That's it . . . go on, I dare you to say it to that **** who's gesticulating through the window.
There! Don't you feel better now? And he can't complain, because you've used a word that is completely, utterly, absolutely and entirely fresh, mint, strange, unfamiliar, unheard of, untried, unused, modern, new-fangled, novel, original, revolutionary . . .
Bridget Brown is a supply teacher in Hertfordshire