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18 December 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 5:06pm

How modern life distorts the way we speak English

When did all shop assistants start asking, “Are you all right there?” And can I blame Simon Cowell for the indiscriminate use of "passionate"?

By Philip Norman

The whirring ATM machine fails to produce the money I requested. Instead, the screen tells me, “SORRY, WE CAN’T GIVE YOU CASH RIGHT NOW.”

What makes this message so terrifically annoying? There’s so much to choose from. Is it the “right now”, which wraps an admission of failure in a hip Americanism? Is it the airy vagueness? (If not “right now”, might there be cash in a moment?) Is it the slightly reproving tone, as if the ATM machine were busy with much more important stuff than shovelling out tenners to me?

So many forms of words one encounters nowadays are subtly insulting and patronising in just that way. For instance, when you explain or describe something to someone, they are likely to answer, “Oh . . . OK.” The “oh” expresses surprise and the “OK” signifies acquiescence despite the listener’s better judgement. In other words: “You’re obviously raving mad but I’ll go along with it.”

Whenever a new infuriating verbal tic comes along, I wonder who started it and how it reached so many people so quickly. Who was the first to say “I was like” rather than “I said”, or “The thing is is . . .”, or “ree-search” instead of “research”, or “going forward” instead of “in the future”? How is it that suddenly anyone delivering any form of explanation begins with the word “so”? Who first thought of personalising impersonal moments by saying, “Bear with me” when routing your phone call, or “Just pop in your Pin for me” when you pay for something with a card?

When did all shop assistants start asking, “Are you all right there?” instead of “Can I help you?” and psephologists take to informing us incessantly at general elections that the result is “too close to call”? At what point did a briefing turn into “a heads-up” and people, rather than computers, start being “hard-wired” and having “default settings”, as well as finding all kinds of intrusive extra ingredients in their DNA? (“Italy,” I recently heard a TV chef declare, “is in my culinary DNA.”)

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Occasionally, such verbal eczema can be traced back to a definite source. The ubiquitous use of “guys”, irrespective of gender, dates from the Friends TV show in the 1990s. “D’you know what?” as a conversational key change to candour and sincerity should be copyrighted to Simon Cowell. The indiscriminate use of “passionate” also must derive from Cowell’s talent shows, as it is something every contestant must be. Now even Thames Water is “passionate” about water and sewerage.

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Most annoying words and phrases don’t even have the virtue of newness but, as T S Eliot said, are like old copper pennies, worn smooth with overuse. Sports commentators are the worst offenders, with an overheated vocabulary that calls every moderate-sized crowd “fantastic”, every successful kick or shot “fabulous” and every mildly surprising result “incredible”. The lexicon of sport is omnipresent, reflecting a nation that is serious about little else. Every significant person in any profession is “a player”, every important decision “a game-changer” and everyone in need of improvement “needs to raise his [or her] game”.

Politicians come next, though their need to hide behind words makes for a more varied metaphorical palette. How often have we heard a government minister declare that such and such a thing will never happen “on my watch”, evoking a vision of some trusty skipper in oilskins, steering us safely through tempests? How often have ministries and agencies been called on to “step up to the plate”, and MPs, caught out in lechery or dishonesty, pleaded hopefully that it’s “time to draw a line under” their misbehaviour?

Today’s news broadcasts consist almost entirely of clichés bolted together in blithe unconsciousness of the surreal mixed metaphors that can result: “After the bubble burst, a lifeboat operation was launched to shore up the system . . .” or, “Unless somebody’s head is stuck on a pike, people will start to cry whitewash.” These are genuine examples heard on the BBC, on which it’s now more important for commentators to wave their hands around than use English with intelligence.

Broadcasters can at least plead the pressure and panic of live transmission. Not so print journalists, who with calm deliberation reach for ninth-hand coinages such as “a perfect storm”, “fit for purpose” or “the usual suspects”. The drama critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that he could never love anyone who didn’t thrill to John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. I couldn’t love anyone who began an article, like so many others, with Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .”

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