Prepare for the mating game

13th October 2000 at 01:00
MY younger daughter doesn't have any friends. Instead she has "mates". Mates are everywhere these days. When I was young the only mate I ever encountered was the poor scruffy underfed youth who held things for the plumber. Decorators and plasterers had mates too and so did animals when David Attenborough was commentating breathlessly on their sex life. Ships also had mates, not other ships with whom they enjoyed sexual congress, but men who said "Aye, aye" in black-and-white films whenever the captain enquired "All well master mate?" - a line that frequently reduced my class to hysterics for reasons I didn't quite get.

These days, however, girls' magazines are full of offers for "You and some mates to win a trip to your top fave rave". The first time I overheard young Ginny speaking of her "mate" I had a paternal panic attack with visions of David Attenborough commentating away as my under-age daughter attempted to take up plumbing ... or worse. Still, language is like a river, if it doesn't move forward it stagnates. Some recent innovations in English have been quite welcome. Words likeadhocracy, mouse potato, golden handcuffs and horsiculture possess both wit and clarity. What more can we ask of a language? Linguistic change is only to be regretted when the upshot is ambiguity, something that benefits no one - except for comedians and headline writers. Have you noticed how "Aids for the disabled" has come to read like a sick joke?

Some words and phrases pass their sell-by date. Nobody says "as a result of" anymore. Everything is "due to" and I don't think we suffer too much as a result. Personally, however, I'd be sorry if we lost friend, friendly and friendship. Nowadays it seems that the only thing that is "friendly" is your own side when they're firing at you. As for friendship, the concept, it has much greater nobility than mateyness, which presumably is the most to which Ginny aspires. Could Byron have ever written "Mateship may, and often does, grow into love". Would Mark Anthony have got very far making his appeal to "Mates, Romans and Countrymen"? A mate is for drinking, giggling and plastering, a true friend is worth his weight in golden handcuffs.

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