Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
30 May 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 9:19am

Jonathan Meades and the proud art of slang

Meades delivered, in essence, an illustrated essay in which he praised slang, the language of the common man, and attacked jargon, used by idiots and charlatans.

By Rachel Cooke

How on earth did Jonathan Meades on Jargon make it all the way to the screen (10.30pm, 27 May)? Were the people in BBC corporate responsibility (or whatever it’s called) drunk or stoned or something, or did it unaccountably bypass their office all together? I’d love to know the name of the plucky commissioning editor who signed it off for broadcast, complete with its unregulated use of the C-word, its disdainful attack on tabloid newspapers (“written by people who can’t write, and read by people who can’t read”), not to mention its savaging of Alba, the BBC’s embarrassingly feeble Gaelic service. He or she deserves a medal: the J Meades Award for Services to Sanity and Clear Thinking. This would come, not with a pathetic Perspex trophy, but with a Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and a case of good claret.

Meades delivered, in essence, an illustrated essay in which he praised slang, the language of the common man, and attacked jargon, used by idiots and charlatans. He took charge of the words; Francis Hanly, his long-time director, oversaw the pictures, which included tableaux of tiny plastic figures (Subbuteo, minus the wobbly bit), two of whom were arranged in flagrante delicto on the miniature bonnet of a car. (Am I allowed to use in flagrante delicto? Not when Anglo-Saxon would do just as well; Meades likes the term “offal-rubbing” for sex.)

Meades was, as usual, suited and carefully motionless, like an undertaker who’s trying not to reveal to a difficult client that he took too much gin with his lunch. Every now and then, however, he would suddenly appear before us as Benny from Crossroads (Benny having long since passed into the language to denote a thick person). This was a hallucination that derived a certain extra je ne sais quoi (there I go again) from the fact that Meades attended Rada.

Every line was devastatingly cogent – though, alas, those his script attacked are utterly incapable of experiencing shrivelling shame, even were they likely to have been watching (cue George Osborne saying the words “Northern Powerhouse” over and over like some stuck record). Slang, Meades noted, is wildly creative; so much of the pleasure of it lies in its making. What deep satisfaction there is to be found, for instance, in the phrase “a Glasgow oyster” (a lump of phlegm), or in the adjective “badered” (an invention of Meades’s own that means legless, and derives from the flying ace Douglas Bader, who lost both his legs while practising aerobatics). Jargon, on the other hand, is euphemistic, vague, conformist and resolutely uncreative, and those who use it are pompous and self-important, not to mention craven (the jargoneer, Meades said, “gives great forelock”).

Having dismantled the politicians, he moved on to football pundits, with their reliance on such expressions as “half a yard” (like using the word “peck” or “bushel”, Meades said), and to tabloid subs, with their devotion to “quipped”, “penned” and, in place of fire, “ablaze” (see also: “despicable sex acts”). Finally, he set upon art types, who surely deserve his lethal opprobrium more than most. The noted curator, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Meades said, expectorates words so meaningless when grouped together – phenomenology, hybridisation, blah blah – they comprise an idiolect only he can understand. I’ve interviewed Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, and this is true: he smiles and smiles at you, but his talk is just so much unfathomable noise.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Meades’ film should be taught in schools, and screened on a weekly basis in all other institutions. It could change everything. Is the same true of The Handmaid’s Tale (9pm, Sundays) now in its second season on Channel 4? I must be honest. I lasted for only five minutes of the first episode – a mass hanging of handmaids appeared to be under way – and I will not be returning. It’s still wonderfully acted (or so I imagine); the direction as painterly as ever. But it seems to me that there is now something orgiastic about the violence it depicts, just a little too loving and lingering. It fills me with horror. It is a brutal kind of pornography, and why would any woman want to buy into that? 

Content from our partners
The truth about employability
Why we need a Minister for Citizen Experience
Look at the person, not the CV

Jonathan Meades on Jargon (BBC Four)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4)

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 30 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead