Please, it's cool to be, like, hot

5th January 2001 at 00:00
THE development of language amazes me. The fact that "gay" has come to mean homosexual, "sad" to mean pathetic and "bad" good says a lot about western society but some philological changes are common the whole world over, it seems.

According to experts working on the development of child language, I read that one of the last verbal skills to be acquired is the ability to say please when asking for something. Evidently this holds true whatever tongue is being spoken. And it's certainly the case in our household. It has taken me years of correction, cajoling and downright bullying to get my three children to add that monosyllable to any request. "But you still understand what I mean without it," argues Ginny. "It's not necessary." In this, she reflects the view of many philologists.

"It is necessary if you want to get what you're asking for," I reply, reflecting the view of many parents. You'd think that my girls were paragons of linguistic precision the way they fight shy of one grammatically superfluous word. And this from daughters who have just acquired the essential teenage habit of dropping "like" repeatedly - an meaninglessly - into any sentence.

"Come on, it's not as if it's a big deal, Dad," adds Sarah. "Puh-lease." Now, this I find initially quite extraordinary. Why is it so hard to remember to use please if you're asking for something but so easy when you're expressing irritation and despair or simply saying "Oh God, don't"? The answer must lie in the fact that language is always evolving. We cannot halt this; we can only hope that evolution brings with it greater clarity.

Recently, I was surprised to discover that "cool" no longer meant laid-back, as I thought. "Cool is like hot and funky," Sarah explains. That which my generation might have called cool is now "mellow". Cool also doubles as an affirmative and takes the place of "yes". For example, should a hunk say to Sarah "Wanna come out this evening?", she might reply "Cool", meaning "Yes, please". Whereas, if a nerd asked her, she could well be provoked to reply "Oh puh-lease!", meaning "No".

So cool means "please" and puh-lease means "don't". Not forgetting that cool also means "hot". As Sir Thomas More once remarked, I trust I make myself obscure.

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