The old devil's last words

14th March 1997 at 00:00
The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage by Kingsley Amis Harper Collins, #163;16.99

In the latter years of his life the great Irish satirist, Jonathan Swift, amused himself compiling an ironic collection of "Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now Used . . . in the Best Companies in England". Swift found some consolation from the bitterness of political impotence by devoting his last, lonely days to this fastidious anthology of modish solecisms, fashionable slang and "polite" illiteracy. The tradition still continues; those unable to restrain the crass stupidities of real-life men and women often find a kind of compensating power in a tyrannical vigilance over punctuation and prepositions.

Kingsley Amis who, in his latter years, affected to find the majority of his fellow beings to be descendants of Swift's Yahoos, took his revenge in a form of linguistic guerrilla war against the barbarities of modern jargon. Readers of his last novel, The Biographer's Moustache (published in 1995), will recognise the self-portrait of an ageing, misanthropic novelist, whose sole pleasure comes from trapping unwary guests into a vulgar mispronunciation of "tissue", or an ignorant misuse of "hopefully". Now Amis comes from beyond the grave, to issue yet more acidulous edicts against vulgarisms, Americanisms and political correctness.

The King's English (not the Queen's English, please note) is a compendium of favourite bugbears, each one savoured with that peculiar malicious delight which comes from cultivating the things he hates.

As a guide to modern usage it is not without a certain old-fashioned pedagogic usefulness, but its chief appeal lies in registering the Richter scale of Amis's exasperation at each new (or sometimes old) adversary. "My tolerance wears thin", he wearily observes, at the American habit of shifting stress to the last syllable of a word. "And it - my tolerance - snapped altogether the other day when I heard an English broadcaster refer to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with Juliet given last-syllable-stress treatment . . ."

He describes "as to" as "this pair of nasty little words" whose "infection" has spread without apparent check. "Any moment I expect to read that 'I asked him as to who he was'." Jejune, he still declares (as he did in 1980) to be his "favourite solecism of all time", a word mispronounced (as "zherZHERN" not "djiJOON"), misunderstood (as if cognate with jeune) and even misspelt (jejeune).

Some words are now beyond all hope of rehabilitation. Refute, now usually taken as a synonym for deny, is one of them. "The word is now unusable by any person of intelligence and taste." Gay, in its old sense of blithe or cheerful, is another, when it comes to homosexuals; sod and bugger are the words that Amis prefers. As a man who was warned by his publisher, in 1955, that the use of the word bugger might cost him 2,000 sales, Amis is particularly fastidious in his choice of swear-words. He prefers ballocks to bollocks, he tells us, and warns against confusing berks and wankers.

"Berks are careless, coarse, crass . . . they speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs . . . Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin." Wankers, on the other hand, "are prissy, fussy,priggish, prim . . . Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin." After all this, it comes as some surprise to be told that Amis considers any linguistic discussion of obscenities as "unattractive and of doubtful value".

Somewhere, amid the parade of prejudices, the expertise on malt whiskies and the deliberate cultivation of curmudgeonly quips, there is a useful and usable book here, which offers sane advice on the language we all employ.

Some of the distinctions, as between that "soporific duo" imply and infer, are old standards; others, as between crescendo and climax, are specialities of the house.

Arranged alphabetically, the book is good for browsing in, and if the irritation which it designedly provokes is instrumental as an aide-memoire,it will have fulfilled its ostensible didactic function.

Few Americans (if there are any rash enough to read this book) will have the temerity to begin a sentence with Too, after having been warned that "not even Americans should be allowed to get away with that". And it is even possible that some people may be encouraged to observe the distinction between disinterested and uninterested by being told that the "depraved" misuse of these words is a case of "ignorant bullshit".

David Nokes is Reader in English Literature at King's College, London

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