To be honest, it’s totally random

The lexicon that grips the masses

This column takes its title from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay's seminal work on folly, first published in 1841, and subsequently much revised to account for the mechanisation of 19th-century hysteria. Mackay treats of many psychic states, ranging from the innocuously barmy to the downright deranged, but to my mind one of his most interesting sections concerns the way in which a nonce word, or phrase, will grip the masses, until you cannot listen to an exchange between two people without hearing it used. D'you know what I mean?

In Mackay's day the London mob were seized by successive manias for catchphrases as various as "Quoz", "What a shocking bad hat" and "Has your mother sold her mangle?". In some instances, he is able to trace the expression back to its origins in a real happening, or a popular ballad, while with others, although unable to explain where it came from, he nonetheless furnishes a wealth of anecdotage. One such is "Who are you?", a line that was so much the rage, it entered the literary canon through the mouth of the caterpillar in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

According to Mackay, "Insolence made use of it to give offence; ignorance, to avoid exposing itself; and waggery, to create laughter." So entrenched did "Who are you?" become, that a judge at the Old Bailey used it in court to devastating effect. However, Mackay offers no wider analysis of the collective psyche, nor hypothesises as to why a given phrase self-seeds throughout the body politic at a given time.

I've been interested in these aggravating verbal tics for many years now, specifically since "D'you know what I mean?" became universal in the 1980s. It is my contention that their wildfire spread reflects the populace's underlying preoccupations.

End of the day

I would argue that "D'you know what I mean?" came to prominence in the mid-1980s precisely because this was the time when, following the depredations of the first Thatcher term, people began to doubt they were being understood: old class-bound discourses were breaking down, ethnic minorities were burgeoning, and therapy-speak was rising from the couches of the shrinks to infest every fourth-rate chat mag's agony column and every daytime TV show. No wonder the next nonce phrase to clamp British speech in its steely jaws was the even more hateful "To be honest . . .", with its implication that the speaker doubted her own veracity, let alone her interlocutor's.

By the time we reached the end of the 1990s, there was a pressing need for new involuntary mantras, and so "At the end of the day" spewed forth from the mouths of football managers, and was piped deep into the group mind. There were many phrases already in existence to express the idea of finality and summation, so why did this particular one become such a virulent meme? My argument is that, buried way down inside our secular soullessness, there remained a core of Judaeo-Christian anxiety about the coming millennium, and that when, during the last years of the century, we burbled "At the end of the day", we were subconsciously alluding to our fear of Revelation, followed inexorably by Judgement.

Titter ye not, as Frankie Howerd and a thousand thousand impersonators might say, I'm serious about this. Naturally, there are those phrases that -pace Mackay - derive from television shows and pops songs. Recent examples would be "the only gay in the village", coined by Matt Lucas and David Walliams for their show Little Britain, and "Am I bovvered?", devised by Catherine Tate. That these phrases became so widespread was testimony not only to their ­effectiveness in successive sketches, but also to their ready application to a host of real-life situations. In the case of "only gay", it chimed perfectly with all those Noughties situations in which identity politics were spuriously deployed. As for "bovvered", well, am I - or are you, for that matter? Surely almost everyone reading this is afflicted by the Great Stench of ennui that rises from the burgeoning underclass. You could plot a graph of widening wealth disparities over the past decade and it would probably directly correlate with the increased mouthing of: "Am I bovvered?"

Just like a prayer

But come the time, come the nonce phrase, and since the credit crunch the one I've been hearing most frequently is "random". Random is employed, so far as I can see, entirely randomly, not simply to express the idea of contingency, the chancy or the haphazard, but, perversely, its opposite. As in a fortysomething man of my acquaintance describing the posting on YouTube of film clips that have been overdubbed to comic effect: "They just get hold of some random film . . ." At which, I pulled him up and explained that the reverse was the case: the clip had been carefully selected.

I first noticed "random" falling unbidden from the lips of my teenage children; in due course, it gravitated down to their younger siblings. Next - as above - I registered that it had also bubbled up the demographic. My informants tell me that "random" insinuated itself into British vocalisation through such US teen productions as Clueless and Beverly Hills, 90210, and was altogether passé years ago. I think not. Responding to the universal, but imperfectly acknowledged, awareness that it was bankers' willingness to accept systematically flawed calculations of risk that led to the near-collapse of the western financial system, random resurged. It became a talismanic word. It is now uttered, I contend, the way certain Orthodox sects chant the name of God: as a form of prayer, in this case addressed to Fortuna herself.

Madness of Crowds appears fortnightly
Will Self's column on food, Real Meals, appears in the Critics section on alternate weeks