A diatribe on dire and dreadful English

The Vernons Girls and the Beatles. Poor old Ringo, nobody wanted to sit on his knee.

No! This is NOT a rant from an Irish man against the English. Nor indeed against anyone bearing that surname. It’s not even by me.

It’s a guest post from eminent Blackwatertown reader Nigel Morgan, who’s English himself.

It’s his heartfelt cry to the heavens about the corruption of the English language. But is he right?


“How are you?” I innocently asked my acquaintance recently. I know, I know, this most innocent of questions can leave you open to a life history of ills real or imaginary, but to receive the reply of “Good” seems not only boastful but also inaccurate. Surely the response must be well or unwell; “good” is an adjective, and is thus irrelevant to the enquiry.

In the same conversation I was astonished to be told that “I literally died of shock”- an assertion that is as self-evidently untrue as “We don’t need no education”- unless the double negative concedes that “we” do need just this.

Warming to my theme, how about the extraordinary “window of opportunity” or plain “window” when the speaker simply means an opportunity- what has fenestration to do with opportunity?

Ah, but “at the end of the day” does it matter? Probably not, if it really does mean in the evening with a glass of red wine already inside one- but it certainly does if all the speaker means is “ultimately”. It is as extraordinary as “at this point in time”, which is a prolix, clumsy, and absurd way of saying “now” or “currently”.

When in 1962 the Vernons Girls sang “Boys are Natural Twisters” they added the phrase (and song title) “You know what I mean?”- I think there was a question mark at the end. However- this is now used frequently as a coda to sentences where one clearly cannot possibly know what the speaker means as its message was opaque or even unintelligible.

“I mean” there are plenty more- so let’s have them, “Bring them on”! Meanwhile, I shall take my car out of the “garidge” – how in heaven’s name did “garage” end up thus? I’m driven to drink.

Here are the Vernon Girls singing. They’re funny. Go on. Give it a go.

And if you want proof that the girls really did like the Beatles, here’s the evidence.

But getting back to what Nigel says. Is he right? Or is it time he dismounted from his high horse and acknowledged that it’s well past time that the term the English language was superceded by American? (Though of course we all know where the best English is spoken and written. Here’s a clue. It’s somewhere in between.)

Do you mourn the passing of old standards? Or welcome the evolution of the language as common usage creeps into even such august institution as (gasp) the BBC. Is English what people should say? Or what they do say?



Filed under Guest Posts, language, Music

55 responses to “A diatribe on dire and dreadful English

  1. Just getting in here before the flood. This is a subject guaranteed to bring in the comments.

    I sympathise fully with Nigel. I don’t think a language should be set in stone. Clearly if it is to remain relevant it should be able to adapt to current developments in its own environment, including the advent of abbreviated social media.

    But really, it shouldn’t have to regress in order to accommodate sloppy thinking. I am reminded of George Orwell’s “newspeak” where he argued that limiting the scope of language ultimately resulted in limiting the scope of thinking itself. I think he was absolutly right here.

    I have had my own brushes with English English ( http://photopol.com/language/language.html#proper ) and with the conflict between the Queen and the President ( http://photopol.com/language/language.html#attali ). All good fun if it wasn’t so sad.

    Love the piece.


    • blackwatertown

      Good links. No facility to comment on them at them, so I’ll mention here that I loved the Welsh street sign – excellent example of different perspectives givign different names – shirehall/jail street.

      • You peeked!

        Yes, no comment facility. It’s not a blog, just my website which I code myself and wouldn’t know where to start coding for comments.

        I do have a broader feedback though in the form of the guestbook linked from the home page, so I don’t feel I’m curtailing free speech but at the same time don’t have to deal with a raft of comments on individual items. I get enough of those on my 4 blogs and what with that and email I run the risk of being captured by the computer 24/7. God forbid..


  2. Nigel

    It is probably poor form to comment on one’s own article, but for the record Blackwatertown has- mischievously?- added the word “English” to the heading of this article. “Nice one”, Paul!

  3. Or forgotten to take out the word “the”.

    The proof of the pudding is in the reading. 🙂


  4. Of course it matters:

    What is this thing called love?
    What is this thing called, Love?
    What? Is this thing called love?

    Proof in the pudding! Ooops, sorry!

  5. Thank you for introducing me to the Vernon Girls — that was a fun clip! “Boys are natural twisters, you know what I mean.”

  6. I knew it, HH, you are a rascal. Addin’ words (slipping ’em out?). Bet you were an imp as a little boy … and you know what they say about boys.
    Blessings – Maxi

  7. Language is communication…if you get what I want to convey, grammar, syntax, commas and colons, tense and gender are just vehicles to carry you from here to there. Dig me!

  8. Nigel

    Were it the case that I had understood what was meant on these occasions, I would not have put pen to paper- if you know what I mean! However, in my innocence I took “at the end of the day” literally- and thereby suffered subsequent disappointment and confusion.

    As for “You know what I mean?”, on one occasion when I explained that I did not, the response was “Well, you know, I mean, like”- and the “like” had no connection with a simile or finding something agreeable.

    • blackwatertown

      You know you’re in Belfast when every other sentence ends with “…you know what I mean, like, but.”

  9. O. Shocus

    A nice read.

  10. The Vernon football pools girls and the Beatles….. that takes me way back, I was still at school in 1963!

  11. In the last analysis, all things being equal, I’m 110 per cent behind the natural evolution of the language, going forward. Trying to turn the clock back is literally like King Canute trying to hold back the waves, when all’s said and done.

  12. Oh this one is so funny, BWT. I often sing an extract from that song and never could think of where it came from. Riddle solved.
    As to evolution, English is not stagnant like dead languages, it is evolving, sure as txt and wft and lol.

  13. Nigel

    Evolution? Then whoever created it has a lot to answer for! Wait a minute, that sentence ended in a preposition…..

  14. rummuser

    Nigel should visit India. Each language has adopted English to its own syntax and the result is a rich variety of Englishes. Communication improves.

    • blackwatertown

      I love hearing dignified-sounding police officers talking about how they “nabbed the miscreant” when referring to a protracted gun battle.

  15. Nigel

    I cannot of course write about spoken English in India (but am grateful for the implied invitation to visit), but am fascinated to learn that the plural of English is Englishes there.

    As to syntax, that would be a rich source of state revenue here.

  16. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is magnificent blog. An excellent read. I will definitely be back.
    Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it. Look advanced to far added agreeable from you! However, how can we communicate?

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  20. You certainly managed to hit the nail on the head.

  21. Barbara-Anne Eddy

    My friend Nigel sent this to me in Canada, where we speak English too–somewhere halfway between British and American. My oet peeve (cat or dog? I’m not sure) is misplaced apostrophes, which I correct whenever I can. Have a good (not well!) day!
    Barbara-Anne Eddy

  22. Barbara-Anne Eddy

    Sorry–it should read “pet peeve.”

  23. Nigel

    Aberrant apostrophes annoy me very much too, and I also correct them on grocers’ blackboards and similar places. However, I was limiting myself here to dreadful expressions in spoken English, and aberrant apostrophes cannot be heard- thank goodness. I hope to discuss these points with Barbara-Anne this summer.

    • blackwatertown

      Lucky lucky Barbara-Anne.
      (Actually, hang one a mo – she’s not THE Barbara-Anne, is she? Perhaps she fled California to escape the Beach Boys’ instrusive crooning.)

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