Banned words

I REMEMBER my brother as a seven-year-old leaning over our garden fence and shouting ‘Bum, bum, willy, willy’ at the new neighbours. From the lofty heights of my eight years I explained that this was just a ‘phrase’ he was going through.

We carry on going through phrases all of our lives it seems to me. ‘We’ as a society, I mean.

You wake up one morning and everyone’s on it or across it. I mean, what’s that about? Or every mother in the playground suddenly announces she doesn’t do maths, cooking or even, in one case, people.

OMG is probably the most ubiquitous. This seems to have transcended its origins (Was it that episode in Friends where Chandler’s girlfriend says it all the time?) and become normalised. It’s even got the coolio twist of zOMG which is based on a common typo, demonstrating the impact of texting and tweeting.

If I’d been paying attention I could probably trace where more of them came from. Often it’s popular TV shows and films.

In the US they try to ban some of the worst. This year they’re banishing fiscal cliff and spoiler alert among others. I can’t seem to find any comparable UK lists.

That doesn’t mean they don’t exist of course. Every student of poetry soon learns that it’s much worse than swearing to use the words shard, gossamer, rainbow or dream, and that the moon must be handled with care, while abstract concepts anger, love, grief etc must be shown, or described in concrete terms, rather than named.

In prose adverbs can be used only very, very sparingly. You shouldn’t use passive verbs either.

As the US list is published in the name of the Queen’s English, this looks like a case of our friends across the pond trying to be more English than we are. Or maybe it’s irony. (Contrary to popular wisdom, all my American friends do irony.)

I love the way language changes and grows. I have no truck with pedants who, just because they have learned about split infinitives and gerunds, want to inflict them willy-nilly on the rest of us. This is simply the elite keeping watch at their gates and in a very boring way. There’s no excuse for it in conversation and even in print it’s of limited guidance.

I particularly enjoy the way America often throws up vigorous new phrases which make me see the world in a slightly different way. I consistently find American neologisms very useful.

One friend from Los Angeles used to dismiss people she disliked with ‘she’s not on my grid’. Don’t you just know what that means without having it explained? It’s so expressive.. There’s no bitchiness there. It’s just they had no co-ordinates in common.

The same friend, when I complained about another mother whose bragging about her children left me feeling inadequate and furious, explained, ‘She’s just your toxic baby-friend.’

So that was alright then.

But when everyone’s saying the same thing something else is going on. It’s not just the joy of language. It’s people wanting in on something. Something they feel is cool or powerful.

Guard was the first word I can remember taking the playground of my own childhood by storm. Suddenly everyone was saying it. Oh guard!

We didn’t have a telly so I wasn’t exposed to Starsky and Hutch or The Dukes of Hazard or whatever it was that everyone was watching and aping. It took me a long time to work out that this was a US pronunciation of ‘God’.

Our appropriation of Americanisms persists despite the irritating anti-American shtick that I meet occasionally. (Could everyone in Britain just grow up about this? They won their independence, they’re bigger, more powerful and richer than we are. Suck it up. You’re making yourselves look like poor losers. And I’m not even mentioning the wars.)

Guard was quickly superceded by wicked, probably the first case in my lifetime that I noticed  the language of gangs, or the street more broadly, being taken up. Because it’s really cool to have guns and drugs, yeah? And today we have sick or at least we do here in the provinces. In London it’s probably something else by now and Manhattan will have moved on even earlier.

People don’t just choose their vocabulary to look cool, obvs (how cool is that though? ‘Obvs’?). I can remember one excruciating moment at a dinner party where I was chatting to the host about this sort of stuff and talking about how the word scary was suddenly everywhere (this was back in the day).

I suggested that this was because people wanted to create an impression of themselves as artlessly child-like and sweet and that as such it was an unbearable affectation. As I finished the sentence further down the table the hostess used the word in a conversation she was having with another guest. ‘More wine?’ said the host. zOMG.

Why didn’t I just stick to ‘bum bum willy willy’? No one wants to fall out with the man. Or his wife.



Posted in Writing

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