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.

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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.

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? 

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

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead