I am revoking a quiet declaration of unconditional surrender on matters of style and taste. Long ago, starting when the Scottish Review was young and printed, I used to write the occasional piece about current usage and ill-usage in less well-ordered public prints. It would lament the decline and fall of proof-reading, insist that decent grammar is an aid to good understanding, and advocate a bit more fact-checking now that the internet provides such lavish and instant resources. It might also include some grumbles that showed my age (even then), whether about fashionable obscenities, alternative asterisks, or the inability of many modern journalists to match the accuracy in writing on religious or military matters of even the old-time atheist or conscientious objector.
But I gave up on what began to seem ineffective repetition. Why lament what I could do nothing about? I found consolation in roaming the internet and marvelling at how well-written standard English, in British and American forms or other minor variations, was holding up in the better papers of a post-colonial world, even sometimes where it was a second language or lingua franca. Accepting that change is part of the life of any living language, I hoped that half the provocations to wrath could be attributed to ill-checked spell-checkers and the other half would sort themselves out into mere trivia, rational changes in usage, and passing linguistic affectations. I all but accepted the changed meaning of decimate and prepared to kiss goodbye to the accusative whom.
It was not always easy to keep silence and the internet rambles which so long comforted me have now provoked me beyond the endurance customarily demanded (especially in the paywall-free territory of the Guardian) of straight, white, binary, and even mildly eurosceptic men. But I can longer hold my peace. Even I seem to serve with Don Quixote or the much misunderstood Canute, king of the clichés.
The final provocation came from the best free alternative to the Guardian, that marvellous compendium of valuable information, sex advice, congenial bias, and awful rubbish, the Mail Online. The Queen, it reported, (7 April) 'is a distant ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad' – reviving a questionable bit of genealogy which has been intermittently reported for years but which induced The Times to lift the aged and dubious news item even while correcting the awful English.
The trouble with being so crudely provoked on such matters is that one becomes hyper-sensitive again and notices all the bad habits and errors that usually slip past: the confusion of loathe, loath, and loth, the slackness which lets even the Scotsman find something or someone 'laying in the roadway' and the new dogma which seems to urgently demand the splitting of infinitives, once a matter for sensible discretion, as compulsory – as in a job 'to executively produce a TV series.' Inevitably I also get midge-bites from such old irritants as the use of 'usurp' as a mere synonym for 'replace', and the confusion of 'defuse' and 'diffuse'.
Most of these I could or should put up with, but they put me in a vile mood when I have to cope with the coarse obscenities which supposedly enliven an interview, especially in the sports pages and sometimes the arty or diary ones. I seem to read them as often, with or without asterisks, in a week's Guardians or a month's Heralds as I heard them in my National Service or a long-distant decade of scrummaging.
I think I hate the coy asterisks even more than the words spelled out. I am not sure whether they are meant to be daring adventures for a still prim readership or are just cowardly. But they, like the Guardian's full-frontal style-book, reflect some cultural trends which are as curious as they are deplorable. One is that their intrusion into sports journalism often seems to assert old macho attitudes at a time when other pages are laden with promotional material for women's advance into what have traditionally been 'boys' games.'
Another, evident in journalism as well as literature, is an apparent assertion of supposedly proletarian styles by socialists who are doing well under capitalism. But in my experience there is or was a stronger aversion to very coarse language among some of the 'working classes' than is now customary or fashionable among aspirants to gentility. There was an even wider code among people accustomed to what the BBC now calls 'strong language' about where, when, and in what company some idioms might be used. Part of it was often a readiness, especially when still sober, to desist if giving offence. I fear that some modern journalists want to insist on it, because they enjoy offending the sort of people they think might be offended.
But there are two outstanding incongruities in current fashions. One is that many of those most eager to draw their idiom of assertion, condemnation, and exasperation from the traditional store of 'bad language' also appear enthusiasts for the New Bowdlerisation linked to the intellectually flabby concepts of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Like some earlier prudes and puritans, their eagerness to find offence often overwhelms their judgement and sense of proportion or context.
And for most writers and journalists it has already replaced one set of forbidden words with another, albeit that many of the items entered on its Index are those that good manners, reluctance to give offence, and sensitivity to language changes would ensure are now to be used sparingly or not at all. I generally prefer sensitive use of language to prescriptive rules and blacklists. But sensitivity should still ensure that some usages are disdained.
The second great incongruity is that so much of what is now flaunted or asterisked reeks of grossly offensive attitudes so inconveniently bundled with fairly harmless humour and minor, adjustable language problems as 'sexism'. I am not sure why any synonym for copulation, which even when not a true act of love is surely one with pleasure, should have become so associated with hate, aggression, disdain, or even boredom unless it is linked to some related and thoroughly undesirable male attitudes towards women.
Feminism, so hostile to such attitudes, should surely be discouraging such a vocabulary and not (as in some cases) adopting it. And all humanity should surely be in revolt at the intrusion into British print of that nastiest aggressive American obscenity which adds incest to injury. Its appearance is still rare, but not another and increasing usage in print which should offend the most radical sisterhood as well as any reactionary brotherhood.
I can more readily understand why terms for the female genitalia should become embedded in indices of obscenity but not why any of them should become channels for contempt and the most intense expression of hatred – unless the ultra-feminists are right about male hatred for women. Not so long ago, when I worked with friendly and moderate feminists on broadcasting standards complaints, there seemed to a consensus on this area of coarseness. The main offending word remained taboo in broadcasting and it didn't appear in print. It is now creeping in, with asterisks and without, and I fear for the future.
These trends are probably beyond the effective immediate control of grumbling conservatives like me or even the linguistic anarchists who have taken over much of the media. Things will keep changing – they always do – but in one of two directions.
Possibly what many of us still consider nasty and coarse will gradually lose force and meaning. This is what seems to have happened to some similar words in French, although the language is formally regulated in ways that are unthinkable in the English-speaking world. But another change is just possible.
There might be a reaction against the stridency of modern communication, the grossness of comedy, and the crudeness of controversy. The concepts of good taste, good manners, and good language could be rehabilitated, although some of the new standards would vary appreciably from the old ones, just as the standard English of the future (to my regret) may lose some of its grammar and precision. Should there be such a cultural shift it will be reflected in the media, even the social media.
The first possibility is more likely; the second more desirable.