Friday, January 27, 2012

My black, putrescent soul

In the spirit of an earlier post (Words that won't make you look foolish), I'm looking at words that don't mean what they should. This is partly the result of a moral crisis, whereby I don't always know if I'm right, and partly out of a feeling of irritation with online dictionaries, which seem far too tolerant. Every sub-editor, word-nerd and logophile should be a seething ball of fury, scowling at the world and dreaming hideous punishments for those that abuse their beloved language. If our list were less specific and our intended victims less distant, we would all be Dennis Nilsen

This is why sub-editors never meet in large groups. Partly it's because the suppressed rage of more than half a dozen of them would acquire its own critical mass, creating a fireball of self-righteousness that would evaporate all life within a 200-metre radius. But it's also because of fear: the fear that others of your ilk might a) disagree with you and b) be right. This is like turning up at a Christian fundamentalist convention and discovering that you've each got a slightly different version of the Bible.
"Hey, Patrick's still clinging to Genesis! Aww, how quaint!"
"It's a great story, but a bit out-dated. I replaced it in my Bible with part 2 of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers' Idiots Abroad."
"Leviticus is far too liberal. I replaced it with the Chicago Manual of Style."
The above discourse is unlikely to happen, if only because the God of the Old Testament doesn't have nearly as much fire and brimstone as your average sub-editor. Look into his eyes next time the marketing manager tries to utilise some analytics or leverage some solutions. What's he thinking? Pillar of salt or smiting the firstborn unto the seventh generation? Near to every sub-editor's desk is a suspiciously clear area. But it only looks that way. In the sub's mind it is the display area where he keeps his collection of shrunken heads. 

I'm still looking at words that don't mean what they should. Maybe next week I'll write about them. 

Moral: Self-loathing is pointless. A good sub-editor can loathe you more than you can ever hope to loathe yourself.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The nouning of adjectives

The unfortunate adjective is having a tough time of it. Two unofficial rules covering the use of adjectives seem to have developed in recent years:
1) If an adjective is used, it will be unnecessary
2) If an adjective is necessary, the writer will use a noun instead
An example of the former is the pre-recorded announcement that gets played on British trains as they come into a station (or, as it is now mystifyingly called, "a station stop"): "On leaving the train, please ensure that you take all your personal belongings with you."

Why personal belongings? On one level, you could argue that "your belongings" are personal already, so the adjective is redundant. But what if I'm carrying presents for my daughter? They're my belongings because I bought them with my money, but they're not my personal belongings because they're not for me. The rail company is clearly requesting that I leave them on the train. And yesterday I was carrying a new laptop supplied by my company. That is personal, because it's been set up just for me, but it's not a personal belonging because it doesn't belong personally to me. Again, Southeastern Trains wants me to abandon it. Who do they think I am, a senior civil servant or police officer? 

By adding words, they turn a clear piece of advice into an ambiguous one. Their only excuse is that they don't expect you to take any notice, whatever they say.

Adjectives nowadays are usually unnecessary, as in "her photographer remains locked in ongoing litigation" (Guardian, although let's not forget that "ongoing" is almost always redundant anyway). But sometimes they are deliberately misleading, as in the common phrase "Important Information", which denotes a piece of paper or a web page that can safely be ignored. I'm not aware of any dictionary that has included this new definition of the word "important", meaning "unintelligible and included purely to cover our backside in the event of you doing something stupid". But the day can't be far off.

You'd think that this irrational need to qualify everything would lead to a surge in the use of adjectives, but that's where Point 2 comes into play. When the qualification is truly needed, somehow an adjective isn't enough. In the same way you set a thief to catch a thief, it seems that an unruly noun can only be brought into line by another noun.

This probably started with newspaper headline writers, who would write things like "Noun joy after adjective purge" (the verbs had been exiled years before). Since white space is verboten on newspaper front pages, we can perhaps forgive them for using whatever words fit. That might also explain why headlines are a bit freer on the internet, where space is more malleable and SEO is also a concern. (It doesn't explain why a headline on the BBC front page earlier this month – which, criminally, I failed to save – consisted entirely of six nouns.)

But the habit seems to have spread to places it should never reach. Take this example:
"Per Mertesacker of Werder Bremen is a seasoned Germany international" Guardian, 31 August 2011
Now, there are sometimes excuses for this, such as in this BBC announcement, also on 31 August, of Sanjeev Srivastava as its new "India Editor". One could describe him as "Indian Editor", since he is Indian, but that's not what the BBC meant to say. It would have been odd to describe Mark Tully, who was "India Correspondent" for three decades, as the "Indian Correspondent" since he is English (albeit born in Calcutta). But why not describe Mertesacker as a "German international"? After all, only Germans can play for the the German team, so no ambiguity is possible.*

One objection to using nouns as adjectives is that it creates ambiguity – which of the nouns is the real noun and which are moonlighting as adjectives? – but sometimes that ambiguity has its uses. When Paul Chambers was convicted on terrorism charges for tweeting his desire to blow up an airport, the Twitter hashtag #TwitterJokeTrial implied that it was a trial about a Twitter joke. But it could just as easily read as a joke trial about Twitter, which is how people who oppose security paranoia prefer to read it. Sometimes, a bit of ambiguity is all that's needed to make a joke. Does anyone remember MontyPythonscrapbook?

This is symptomatic of a trend in English of blurring the distinction between word types, summed up by the maxim "There is no noun that cannot be verbed", but we are also seeing verbs being nouned. Most notably, the past couple of years have seen the word "failure" almost entirely replaced by "fail". 

We love the almost unique flexibility of English, but a bit of structure is needed or else the strong meat of language will turn into verbal soup.

*A better example of this has since come to light. When the Guardian reported the death of the legendary Bert Trautmann, he was described as "The former West Germany and Manchester City goalkeeper". Trautmann never played for West Germany.   

Moral: Don't un-noun nouns by adjectiving.