Friday, April 20, 2007

Humphrys's Bogies: Here's Lookin' at You, Kid

I am no great fan of the radio presenter and journalist John Humphrys. Mind you, he is probably no great fan of mine either. Humphrys has made something of a reputation for himself as the Rottweiler of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. After one savage mauling of Tony Blair, he was not allowed to interview the Prime Minister for several years. Though normally such a badge of honour would win my respect, Humphrys, it seems to me, makes a heck of a lot of noise while rarely getting anywhere except under the skin of his opponent (oops, interviewees), not to mention his listeners. I cannot deny the entertainment value of Humphrys's disembowling of John Prescott, that arrogant and now discredited enemy of the Plain English Campaign. Yet his duffing up of the bumbling Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor ranks among one of his less glorious moments: less awkward news-hound and more playground-bully.

That said, I have been thoroughly entertained by Humphrys's recent book Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language. It joins Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves as a recent champion of good English in the public square.

Half the entertainment value of the book comes from the same source as Humphrys's reputation as radio performer. He grabs an absurdity or a weakness, and chomps away for all he is worth. He is, for example, particularly merciless with academic language, dancing with hearty violence on this unconscionable passage of nonsense from Luce Irigaray:

Is E=mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to us the possibly sexed nature of this equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes fastest.

As Humphrys remarks, 'Not even Lewis Carroll would have tried to get away with that'. Indeed, what other speeds are vitally necessary to us? And, if light moves faster, then... it moves faster. It's better not think too much about the 'bleedin' obvious', eh!

Similar and equally deserved assaults are launched throughout Humphry's work on teachers (quoting authentic feedback on a child's work 'I'm sure you could of written it alot neater'), junk mail (quoting the classic, 'As one of our cardholders, I would like to thank you for your custom.'), business jargon (giving instructions about how to play 'Bullshit Bingo' during meetings), and - with refreshing honesty - journalist-speak (according to which emotions are always 'high', doubts are always 'nagging', and warnings are always 'stark'). Humphrys also knows how to be both cutting and wry. In an otherwise very fair-minded chapter on the largely benign influence of American English on British English, he makes the following remark about the use of 'good' as an adverb:

Ask almost anyone under thirty, especially those who aspire to being 'cool', how they are. A few years ago, they would have said, 'I'm well'. Now they say, 'I'm good'. It may be accompanied by a gentle nod of the head and the attempt at a Tom Cruise smile. It makes you want to cuff them smartly across the back of the head and snap, 'Let me be the judge of that, you smug prat!'

As a life-long political commentator, however, he saves his most serious complaints for politicians. Much of what he has to say is summed up in a quotation from William McAdoo (attacking US President Warren Harding) :

His speeches leave the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it away triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it dies of servitude and overwork.

How many political figures could that be applied to these days? Pompous New Labour phrases include the likes of 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' or 'for the many, not the few'. Humphrys - to my horror since it is something I often use - cites the construction 'not only...but also' as classic New Labourese. Not that David Cameron will fail to generate his own thought-manipulators before too long. 'Open mouth-immobilise thought' seems to be the essential tactic.

One last bogey Humphrys identifies, and which is worth mentioning, is the use of 'hurrah' and 'boo' words. These are the kinds of words that demand instant approval and approbation from the reader or listener. This sort of usage has been around for a long while. The almost sacramental power of these words excuses one from any other justification in one's analysis. Scorn or drooling praise can be doled out unreservedly, once these passwords, like conceptual laxatives, have been ingested.

1) Hurrah words:
new, practical, modern, scientific, efficient, progressive, affordable, deserving, natural, authentic, choice, freedom, democracy. Praise these things and everyone sensible must agree with you. Nobody but the foolhardy can possibly utter a word of caution or doubt.

2) Boo words include things like:
old-fashioned, exclusive, angry, privileged, outdated, traditional, religion, custom, virtue. Damn these things, and only the worst reactionaries will crawl out of their lair to demur.

No doubt Humphrys's analysis has its drawbacks. His almost unrelenting pedantry can be tiresome. But he is not above poking fun at himself with genuine self deprecation. He is understanding of those of us who defy the preposition rule in a sentence (which came from Milton anyway, and which should have been killed by Churchill's famous putdown, 'The placing of prepositions at the end of sentences is something up with which we will not put'). And he graciously forgives us when we begin sentences with conjunctions (phew!).

Humphreys echoes a tradition of cautious, thoughtful journalists - George Orwell, Graham Greene, et al. - who ply their trade with words but find themselves in a churning sea of usage, encircled by those enemies of thought, the political manipulators and commercial manglers of language.

I suppose I should be grateful he never turns his guns on bloggers!

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