In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros


Speaking Proper English

Self-styled protectors of the language are often offended when some buffoon mangles The King's English (c.1600) — the monarch long having been considered a paragon of flawless diction and guardian of the language. That, however, is at odds with reality — many a British ruler having fallen short of the ideal, speaking indecipherably or with a heavy accent. In fact, before the Norman Conquest, the language was probably unrecognizable as English. Then from William through to Richard II, the monarchs all spoke French. William III was Dutch and the Georges, I-III were all German speaking.

Apart from failing to meet the alleged standards of The King's English, what the protectors of the verbal realm find even more offensive is use of what they call slang. Slang derives from the Scandinavian sleng, a "toss," describing perfectly words thrown indiscriminately about — and we can't have that!

Worse yet is jive. Originally a term for a ballroom dance style originating with African-Americans in the 1930s, it went on to describe the jargon of jazz musicians and their conversation which many considered nonsensical and not to be taken seriously, and then to any such remarks in general, as so much jive.

The Word Police also gag at the mere sound of jargon — and with good reason. Our jargon began when the Romans began to gargiter, "to make noises with the throat." Initially, it was just so much chattering, but being unintelligible to others, it became "the terminology of a special group" (c.1651).

There are also words unmentionable in mixed company which we dare not print in a "family newspaper."' Invariably, however, one or two sneak into even the most proper of conversations, followed by the response; "Pardon my French," — which translates loosely as, "Please overlook my use of profane language," all things French being considered risqué after British soldiers returned from the French front in 1918 speaking anything but The King's English.

That's nothing. The bane of their existence is the verbal pariah called the cliché. In earlier times, when creating a mold, workers struck the molten lead against the matrix, an activity described by the French described as clicher, "to click," from the sound it produced. Using the past participle to describe a printing plate cast this way, it in turn, created the cliché. Like products produced by a die, the cliché has the same cookie-cutter sameness to it, and also tends to produce many a yawn.

Many consider clichés trite, from the Latin tritus, "worn" — describing words worn thin through overuse. You know, if you've heard one, you've heard them all. Language purists avoid them like the plague; those in the Media clutch them to their bosom. They are, after all, their bread and butter — the sum and substance of their existence and of their best-sellers, which sell like hotcakes, helping them turn a tidy profit.

Knock it as you like, the cliché is there for you, always standing by your side amidst life's trials and tribulations — through thick or thin, come rain or shine — rising to the occasion. Failure is never an option. A friend in need is a friend indeed, and there's no better a friend than the cliché.

Purists, however, hold few briefs for it. They warn of the stereotypes it fosters, from stereo, "solid," also initially referring to printing and a solid plate of type metal. Be advised, dear reader that is only their considered opinion — and, with all due respect — it is one which is not set in stone.

The reason clichés have been around so long is because they say things concisely, in a way that goes directly to the heart of the human condition. What is needed is their creative deployment — not their banishment.

You know what I mean, jellybean?