Our mischievous message-bearers;Another Voice;Opinion

13th August 1999 at 01:00
I'VE always had a love-hate relationship with words.

Nowadays I love the games you can play with them - anagrams, palindromes, puns, the stuff of cryptic crossword clues in general. Sometimes I just love the sound of them: "snorkel", "flint", "brimming", "custard". But I still hate them for the misunderstandings they can cause.

As a toddler, I took for granted the way I could use words to get what I wanted, but deeply resented the ones I couldn't understand, such as "no", "go to bed", and "I'm going to thrash you within an inch of your life"!

In 1950, my family moved to Germany. My Royal Artillery father was posted to the British Army on the Rhine. It was quite a shock, at the age of six, to discover that the Rhine was already occupied - by Germans who spoke a "foreign language" - and that the Rhine was a river and we lived nowhere near it.

To add to the confusion, at school I was told to think of English words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings - climb, clime, weather, whether, oar, or, not, knot; those with the same spelling but with different sounds and meanings - leadlead, sewersewer, wind wind; and then those that are spelled the same, sound the same, but don't mean the same - firefire, shootshoot, filmfilm, listlist, borebore.

Small wonder I rapidly came to the conclusion that words, like girls, were thoroughly unreliable, mischievous and not to be trusted. I took to drawing and painting and adored my piano lessons.

When I was 12, we returned to England and I saw television for the first time. I learned that Murray Mints were "too good to hurry mints". I was sent to grammar school and introduced to rugby and cricket. It was traumatic. I did not know the rules or what "long leg", "line out", "silly mid on", "off side", or "knock on" was. To me, "third man" meant Orson Welles. But talent will out and after two years I was put in the cross-country team along with the other weeds and misfits. Happily, I still found expression in music and art. So I dashed off to art school - believing that there I would be safe from the tyranny of language and the written word.

Not so. If anyone should be forbidden the use of words to describe what they do or believe, it is the painter or the sculptor. Never mind Orwell's "Newspeak", what I call "Artspeak" is worse. Such phrases as "ethnic cleansing", "road rage" and anything with "gate" after it are odious and ugly, but they still carry some meaning in the world of media "soundbites". To describe brushstrokes as "transcendental" or a pickled onion on a hairbrush as an "installation" is twaddle.

I ran screaming back to music and teamed up with a group of like-minded art students. We called ourselves The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and played raucous jazz in pubs for beer money. We combed flea-markets for old records, '78s with titles like - "I'm Going To Bring A Water Melon To My Girl Tonight" and "My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies".

For the first time in my life I discovered the fun of words and soon began to write songs of my own - about "Equestrian Statues" and being an "Urban Spaceman" - while Vivian Stanshall was coming up with "Canyons Of Your Mind" and "My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe". Later, I joined television's Monty Python's Flying Circus team. "The argument sketch", "The cheese shop" and "Dead parrot" still make me grin.

This time last year I was filming a TV series about the English language, called Away With Words. We went out and about digging up the origins and stories behind everyday words and sayings. It fascinates me how our language is not really English at all, with roots in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, German, French, Norse ... if we liked it, we borrowed it.

Some scholars may throw up their hands in horror, but it is ordinary people and everyday usage that cause languages to evolve. The New Oxford Dictionary of English now says it's OK to cheerfully split the infinitive.

The written word is even being adapted to a new "conversational" form on the Internet. Hideous abbreviations abound - BTW = by the way, LOL = laughing out loud, Y2K = the Millennium.

All this may sound like trivia, but "trivia" comes from the Latin meaning "three ways". Wherever three roads crossed, Romans would leave personal messages - a chat line for lonely hearts.

So, as we tick off the Roman months and Saxon days to greet Y2K, why not aim for a New World Order based on the Third Way? Wordpower to the People!

Neil Innes is a musician, author and TV presenter. 'Away With Words' is on the Discovery Channel, starting today at 3.30pm

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today