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Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Everyday English marches on

Having had my rant about mis-use of English and marvelled at unusual use, I am moving on.
From now on I will be looking at various aspects of medicine; in particular medicine without drugs.
Please watch this space...

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Putting Yourself in the Picture

I was fascinated to watch songwriter Guy Chambers collaborate with singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright on the creation of a new song World War III in Secrets of the Pop Song on BBC4. Together they produced a really soaring melody, a great mood and Wainwright's voice is one in a million. But the lyrics - no! One of the things that turns me right off in songs, books, films - just about anything really - is the creator putting themselves right in amongst it all and telling us they're having problems making it work. In this song, the guys were wanting to move on to something catchy and 'hooky', so Wainright sang 'Don't bore us, get to the chorus' and, contrary to Chambers's instinct, it stayed in. No, no and again no!
When I'm listening/watching/reading something, I don't want to know about its creation. I want to be transported by it; it should be a window onto something else, not onto itself. Take the song 'True' by Spandau Ballet - 'Why do I find it hard to write the next line?' - Why do I care? I don't!
My friend Ellie and I once collected novels in which the protagonist was an author who caught other people reading his work. One, I think, was Jonathan Coe's fantastic 'What a Carve-Up!', another was a Martin Amis, I seem to remember. It can be fun, but it can also be damaging to the whole fantasy that it built up in a work of art. Even Rembrandt's painting of himself painting, though brilliant, does annoy me just a little for that reason.
Is it just me?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Ahoy, ahoy, sailors!

I've been musing about the names people give their boats and wondering what it says about them. In sailing superstition, it is unlucky to change the name of a boat. If you simply must (and it's not too hard to see why you might feel obliged), you are required to keep the original name carved in wood in the bow of the boat to avert disaster. Sailors really are more superstitious than your granny, honestly.
Boats are all female (she handles like a dream), (she's happiest when I really let her out) perhaps so the captains can chat in those terms over a harbour-side gin and tonic.
There are those cheerful names like Optimist and Sunny Daze, the names that evoke the sea, the river and the local wildlife, such as Osprey, Pelican, Porpoise, and a final category that perhaps sums it all up. There's Last Fling and Still Got It that I've seen; I've no doubt there's a boat out there called Nil Desperandum and another called Keep it Up. It's all a bit of a give-away when you think about it...

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ain't Nothing Like a Dame

To return to the subject of song lyrics, I must admit that I am fascinated by the way the use of the double negative always sounds so much rockier, so much cooler and - dare I say it? - younger than the 'correct' English. Picture if you will Tina Tuner in her tiny leather mini-skirt and patent high heels singing about how there isn't any mountain high enough to keep her from her beloved. Or Mick Jagger telling us how he can't get any satisfaction. It just won't do.
Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that the word 'any', which would make the statement grammatically correct, has two syllables and would ruin the scansion or rhythm of the line. 'We don't need any education' for example, simply wouldn't fit the music, even though the poor grammar does suggest that a bit of education wouldn't go amiss!
The double negative is the screenwriter's way of telling us that somebody is working class, a villain (I ain't done nothing, honest!) or ill-educated. It places the speaker in society straight away: an immediate pointer to their background. Unless of course they write pop songs, in which case Public schoolboys and University graduates take to it naturally, for reasons of their own.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Oh, Mr Porter!

This afternoon, by a lucky chance, I happened to switch on the radio in time to hear Ella Fitzgerald's glorious voice singing We'll Take Manhattan. Nobody sings it like her. Nobody sings anything like her - and I write this as a fan of the Foo Fighters and others. I always used to think that this song, like so many of Cole Porter's other songs, was a light, delicate bubble of romance; straight-faced and conventional, if one can use such a drab word about such a masterpiece.
Yet in recent years, I attended more closely to the lyrics and found it wry, witty, sarcastic and yet still utterly romantic. Those immaculate lines 'And tell me what street, compares with Mott Street in July?' can perhaps be best appreciated when you have struggled to find a table for dim sum in  the centre of New York's Chinatown in the sweltering summer heat. But once you get the joke, you never hear the song in the same way. You probably knew all this already - pardon me for being a late developer in some matters. If you didn't know, I beseech you to call up Ella singing Porter on Spotify or wherever you can and listen out for the humour. It's there not only in the words but in the way they are put together. Now that's really style!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Cliche - use it or lose it?

A good friend, whose first language is not English, recently asked me what was the difference between a cliche and an idiom. What a good question. After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that an idiom is a phrase whose meaning is not evident in its words. Kicking the bucket, buying the farm, peg out, pop one's clogs etc; all of them mean to die, but unless you knew that, you wouldn't know that.
A cliche, on the other hand, is a well-worn phrase that comes pre-packaged like a frozen meal. It has its uses, it's quick and convenient, but nobody is going to be bowled over by its style or originality. Over the moon, high as a kite, singing from the same hymn-sheet; these are all well-worn, familiar phrases. If you are writing to impress, leave them in the deep-freeze, and create something tasty out of fresh ingredients.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Everyday English, innit?

It's not often that my jaw drops open with shock or surprise, so it must have come as something of a jolt to discover that the word 'innit' is now permissible in Scrabble. Innit is a word (sort of) that asks for confirmation of a statement - or at least it used to. When Britain was a class-ridden place, the lower orders would have said 'ain't it' while the aristocracy would have asked 'don't you know'.
The thing that annoys me most about 'innit' is that is never changes: not tense, not person, nothing, never. Whereas correct English would be 'they ran down the street, didn't they?', street talk says 'they run down the street, innit?' Correct English in the future tense would be 'We'll go to that pub next week, shall we?' while 'innit' users will say 'We'll go to that pub next week, innit?'
'Innit' is not a word, it is an annoying tick that people who don't understand or care how English works add to the end of every expression or grunt in the hope of seeming cool, street-wise and fashionable. Not at all the people you'd expect to find settling down to a nice, quiet game of Scrabble...