Richard Hudson and Geoff Barton on fatness and fitness

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Richard Hudson and Geoff Barton on fatness and fitness

We'd like to do our bit for the TES fitness campaign, so today we explore the link between lifestyle and grammar. That's not actually as contrived as you might think. Being overweight is generally a result of too much food and too little exercise. To change this we need to make a lifestyle change, which we do through changing our thoughts and feelings and these, in part, are a result of language in which grammar plays an important part.

Take the word fat. It's an adjective, as in "I am fat". Adjectives are often used to bulk out description. There's something solid and immovable about them. A sentence like "you are angry" or "you are attractive" suggests a state of being, something that is stable, unchanging and (often) permanent. Even though we know that these things can change, adjectives imply something that is fixed.

They're not, therefore, the ideal word classes to help us make the inevitable change we'll need to make in our lifestyle. For that we need the more muscular impact of verbs. A typical verb is about doing (yes, yes we know that there are verbs that describe passive states, like "know"). So we can "fast" for Lent or "train" for the next sports day, and we can even "diet" to lose weight. These verbs - "fast", "train", "diet" - all put the focus on what we're choosing to do or not to do. They emphasise the actions that result from our choices: we are deliberately eating less and exercising more.

Putting on weight often results from two choices: to eat and not to exercise. There isn't really a verb that helps us to express this. We might "vegetate" or (colloquially) "slob around". But what we're looking for is a verb that means "do things that make one fat", and the fact is that there isn't one. However, we do have a verb for "do things that make someone or something else fat": the verb "fatten", as in "We fattened the goose for Christmas". But to make this relevant to our own lifestyle, we need to create a new intransitive use: "I am fattening." (For a similar transitive-intransitive pair, think of "We increased the pressure" - "The pressure increased".) And what would be the opposite of "fatten"? Well, of course, it has to be "fitten". The choice facing young people is up to them, just like all the other choices - to smoke or not to smoke, to spend or to save, to ride or to walk, to dawdle or to hurry, to fatten or to fitten. Just as sometimes a diet takes a whole new outlook on life to be successful, perhaps it also needs a new vocabulary of fattening and fittening.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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