Language luddites unite! (hopefully)
January 2012

For a street-fighting counter-culture anarchistic insurgent, Jerry Rubin had a surprisingly elegant way with words.  Co-founder with Abbie Hoffman of the Youth International Party (or Yippies to their friends), the late 1960s radical social activist movement, Rubin whiled away the hours between anti-Vietnam War protests and frontal assaults on the Chicago police by committing his anti-establishment thoughts to paper, published subsequently as the infamous Yippie manifesto, “Do It! Scenarios of the Revolution”.

The politics of “Do It!” may seem impractically idealistic nearly half a century on, but amidst the tirades and profanities Rubin revealed a profound concern for the purity of language, bemoaning the hijacking of powerful words and expressions for trivial commercial purposes.  “A dying culture destroys everything it touches” wrote Rubin, “and language is one of the first things to go.  Words have lost their emotional impact and intimacy, their ability to shock.”  Drawing evidence from the world of advertising he so despised, he substantiated his argument  with the following cry from the heart: “Cars Love Shell.  How can I say “I love you” after hearing Cars Love Shell?”  He was equally dismissive of the dilution of another word central to his beliefs, singling out supposed “revolutions” in toilet paper or mouth odour.  “Have the capitalists no respect?” he wailed.

My politics have never had much in common with those of Messrs Rubin and Hoffman.  At university I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Militant Apathy party, whose members proclaimed a triumphal and unanimous affirmation of their credo when no-one turned up at their launch event.  My activist inclinations have remained essentially dormant ever since.  But I confess I do share the Yippie regret at the dumbing down of the modern English language, and I do wish that we had an English equivalent of those gendarmes of French as she is spoke and writ, the Academie Francaise.  The Oxford dictionary people are a clever and diligent lot, but they are essentially recorders rather than guiders of linguistic direction.

These idle thoughts came to mind a couple of weeks ago when I was fortunate enough to visit the Victoria Falls (from the Zambian side) at a time when the Zambezi was in furious high flood.  Standing so close to the torrents that it seemed I could touch them, yet utterly unable to see a thing through the spray, only one word seemed to have the gravitas to describe that moment: awesome.  It was a moment when I was truly filled with awe.  Awe at the power of the mighty Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders), awe at the relentlessly incomprehensible volumes of water disgorged by the Zambezi, and awe at how just how wet your boxers can still get under several layers of waterproofing.

Awesome the falls undoubtedly were.  And yet my 11 year old son’s new Playstation game is apparently equally awesome, as is the latest release from Lady Gaga, and of course his mother’s special banana smoothies.  Colonel Burgers are awesome, iPhones are awesome, Rooney is awesome, and I for one am disappointed.  Awesome things should fill us with an unnerving mixture of wonder and fear, and yet today they seem to be hardly one full rung above plain old cool.  And so yet another word is on the verge of losing its true differentiation, following in the well-worn footsteps of the likes of “hopefully” and, one that would pain Mr Rubin especially, “radical”.

It’s probably not cool – or even rad – to be a language Luddite or an etymological dinosaur, but someone’s got to do it, and so I enthusiastically put my hand up in support of the purity of word usage and definition.  We’re not exactly short of words in the English language – 600 000 at the last count – so there’s no need to make one do the work of several.  And there’s close on 400 million fellow English language speakers I can call on for support.  Does it matter if we lose the battle in the end?  At least we will have tried, and will have done so hopefully.  Who knows, maybe Jerry Rubin and I have a lot more in common than I thought.
How awesome is that?