What do they mean...

19th December 2003 at 00:00
Not all jargon is specialised, or official. The practice of torturing bits of the English language to make them suit other purposes is all around us, particularly at this time of year. As we escape the classroom for a couple of weeks away from the front line of year 6, we walk straight into the firestorm of saturation selling.

We are surrounded by tempting adjectives and persuasive little phrases.

Most of them are so familiar they hardly register, but give them a poke and they crumble away into nonsense. "Ideal Christmas gift" is a perennial favourite. This is normally tagged to something which obviously isn't, like battery-operated nose hair trimmers, or ironing board covers. All food is "mouth-watering", or "scrumptious", or some such, which sounds fair enough - but shouldn't we be the judges of this, thank you very much?

But there are humbler words behind these, which are always with us, and have parted company more or less completely from their original meanings.

Of these, "traditional" is one of the most abused. Now there may be a small village somewhere where every Christmas Day the youngest inhabitant gets to bash the oldest with a pig's bladder full of sour cream, and has done since 1643; that's a tradition. But "traditional" is today mostly used to impart a sort heart-warming link with the past, a historical authority, which ranges from the dubious to the downright silly. I have seen a sign advertising traditional sandwiches. These consisted of two bits of bread with a filling in between. No doubt they could be washed down with a glass of traditional tap water. All pubs claim to serve traditional ales, even when they only sell the pasteurised fizzy stuff (which is called beer, by the way. Ask for a pint of ale, and they'll think you're a pretentious twit who's been reading too much Dickens.).

Whatever is not "traditional" will be "classic", or possibly "unique".

Sometimes it will also be "famous", as in "Try our famous Christmas pudding". You will never have heard of their Christmas pudding before, although it may of course be that people in Patagonia speak of little else (in Welsh, of course).

Still, merchants have been riding roughshod over language for so long, I suppose it counts as a tradition. Anyone for a farmhouse-style minced pie?


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