Writer's toolkit

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Richard Hudson and Geoff Barton ask "What's natural?"

Last week we invented the intransitive verb "to fatten" and its opposite "to fitten" for use in discussions of life-style choices. The trouble with English, we said, was that it doesn't have enough words. This week's contribution tackles the opposite problem, where English has a word that we would all be much better without: the adjective "natural".

Suppose someone in a class discussion argues that controlling your food or your exercise isn't natural; how do you counter it? The trouble is you can't, because words like "natural" immediately rule out rational discussion. Natural things are obviously good because they're in harmony with nature, and none of us wants anything to do with the unnatural. If you want to sell something, you boast about how natural it is and if it's straight from a laboratory or factory, you don't mention that this makes it unnatural. Consequently, as soon as you label one thing "natural" and its opposite "unnatural", there's no question about which is better.

The problem is that when you try to classify behaviour as natural or unnatural, either you give up because you have no idea how to do it, or you decide that natural behaviour isn't that great after all. For example, putting your feet up in front of the TV with a big bag of crisps: natural or unnatural? If natural = easy, then it's natural - but who says that TV and crisps are natural? Thinking in terms of nature in such an "unnatural" culture just isn't helpful.

The trouble is that you can use "natural" to argue either side of any argument. Conserving energy is natural - just think of a cat lying in the sunshine. Running around pointlessly is natural - just think of a cat chasing a leaf. Eating sweets is natural - think of a dog with a lump of sugar. Eating only while you're hungry is natural - think of a dog leaving half his bowl of food uneaten. No doubt a biology teacher could supply more examples.

Words like "natural" are a substitute for real thought. Since the 1930s they've been called "purr words", and their opposites "snarl words". We like these terms, and think they should appeal to KS3 pupils too, who would enjoy thinking of other examples. Here are a few to get started: freedom-fighterterrorist; patriotfascist; planplot; campaignerextremist; left-wingright-wing (or right-wingleft-wing); fancrony; teammob; revellerlout; remindnag; traditionalold-fashioned; slimthin; well-builtfat.

We leave it to your judgment to decide what to do about purr and snarl words, and maybe this is something you could discuss in class. They certainly need to be used with care, but sometimes they're okay. After all, they do express complex emotions rather neatly, and emotions are natural.

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