Monthly Archives: August 2013
Despite fulminating and ranting about the misuse of English, I love some of the new ways the language is used. One of the words I’m particularly fond of is ‘random’. ‘Random’ meaning haphazard, without aim or purpose or without an underlying principle. Nowadays it’s often used to mean strange or weird – indeed sometimes it’s the only word that fits the situation.
Take last week. Last week was random in all senses of the word, old and new. Correct or otherwise. It was scattered. It was weird. It was definitely haphazard. I was editing blogs and writing content. I was trying to sort out the cover for my book, with the help of a friend who is not only kind but more knowlegable and technically savvy than I am in all things jpeg. I was dithering about booking plane tickets – cheap and lethal Ryanair or slightly more expensive but definitely more civilised EasyJet?
While juggling with all this I had foolishly agreed to enter a Tall Tales contest for my Early Birds Toastmasters Club, in aid of a good cause World Child Cancer. What is a Tall Tale? Wikipedia was unhelpful for once as none of the examples were contemporary. Having to fit a story into a formula, of sorts, did bad things to my brain. It froze it. The contest was on Friday. On Wednesday I was still staring at a blank sheet of paper. The only thing I could think of was my ex-cat, Eric, who used to send emails.
A brain frozen takes some time to defrost. Thursday morning I was still struggling. However, thanks to the encouragement and suggestions of my lovely Toastmaster and Twitter friends, a story gradually took shape. A convoluted story involving my beloved Eric, who had, it seemed worked for MI5. Pavel, the psychotic goat, a Russian agent. A plot to blackmail Larry, the Downing Street cat. An exciting chase across Whitehall into Trafalgar Square. A fall from the top of Nelson’s Column, a broken leg and the 73 bus also figured. A fortuitous cat flap and an Islington safe house appeared to signal the end of the story. But no. There was yet another dastardly plot involving the corgies and the Queen, a faked death and a mysterious box of ashes.
If the word random can be applied to anything, it can be applied to last week.
I came third, by the way.
“Laws are like sausages, better not to see them when they are being made.” This remark, in various forms and guises, is attributed to Otto von Bismarck, among others. Whether it was Otto who said it or someone else, they definitely have a point. Some of the stuff that goes into the modern sausage would have you reaching for the sick bowl. Or, in my case, the scotch. This is not to denigrate all sausages. Indeed sausage making has become something of an art form with thousands of varieties being created throughout the world. A cornucopia of flavours and combinations. Some delicious. Others frankly weird. Venison with redcurrant and red wine, duck with orange and apricot, beef and Guinness. Tasty! Rattlesnake and rabbit. Emu and Elk. Dubious to say the least
There is plenty of evidence to show that the sausage was well known in ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed the word ‘sausage’ comes form the Middle English, sausige, which derives from sal, the Latin for salt, that well known preservative. Early man made the first sausages by stuffing roasted meat into stomachs. Animal stomachs, I hasten to add. And dead ones at that. It would be a brave man or woman who attempted to stuff a living bear or bison. No guesses as to who would end up as the filling if it happened the other way round.
Our British banger got its name in the First World War. There were food shortages; meat in particular was scarce. There was little to spare for sausage making. So the manufacturers packed the casings with scraps – bits of vegetables and water. When they were cooked over open fires, notably on shovels in the trenches, the water caused them to hiss and burst and pop. Hence ‘bangers’.
The humble sausage is associated with far meatier things than the full English. Indeed it played a part in the birth of Reformed Protestantism. Not many people know that! It happened in 1522, in Zurich, when a small number of believers met together to defy the teaching of the Catholic Church, which banned the eating of meat in Lent. Led by one Christopher Froschauer they declared that nowhere in the bible did it say you couldn’t eat meat in Lent. So there. The city council finally got round to agreeing with them and passed a law stating that’ No Christian is bound to do those things which God has not decreed.’ And quite right too.
Not only did the modest sausage play its part in the birth of a religion, it also features in the annals of war. For this we again go back to the First World War when the German High Command had a weapon with which it planned to bring Britain to its knees. The Zeppelin airship. These engines of war were responsible for the first bombing campaign directed at civilian targets. Though only 1,500 people were killed – only! – the raids brought terror to the populace, in particular on the South and East coasts where the raids were heaviest.
It was bad luck for the Kaiser when, despite the widespread panic, the campaign failed in its attempt to completely smash morale. Bad luck too for the German populace and even more for German cows. Sausage eating was banned for the duration. Why? Because cows intestines, the very ones used to make sausages, were a vital component in the manufacture of the airships. The technique by which the intestines were turned into gasbags to hold the hydrogen has only recently been discovered and is the subject of a Channel 4 documentary.
So for the Germans it was the wurst case scenario (couldn’t resist!). They may have scared the pants off the Brits, but they didn’t succeed in ending the war. On top of that they were deprived of their favourite food. And spare a thought for the poor cows. In a macabre version of the old light bulb joke – how many cows does it take to make an airship? The answer – 250,000 and that’s just one Zeppelin. It’s enough to moo-ve you to tears (pun intended.)
Some words and phrases have become so embedded in speech that we no longer notice their absurdity and simply accept them. This is dangerous. Dangerous for clarity of thought. Dangerous for the language.
Of these expressions, the one I’m singling out today, among a myriad of candidates, is the use, or more accurately the misuse, of the word “absolutely”. Like the phrase “going forward” it’s redundant. It’s about as much use in a sentence as a snowman is in an avalanche. And you’ll hear it, in the main, on the lips of politicians and, to a slightly lesser extent, used by spokespersons of fat, self- important organisations. Our own prime minister uses it like a comfort blanket.
“We have absolutely no intention …”
“I absolutely agree …”
“Let me make myself absolutely clear …”
“I absolutely take that on board … “
“It’s absolute nonsense … “
At least I can agree with that last one. It is nonsense. Just listen next time you turn on the radio or TV, especially if the interviewee is a politician. Count how many times he or she uses the word. On the other hand don’t, as getting worked up does nasty things to the blood pressure.
Not only is sloppy language indicative of sloppy though – yes, I know, this is one of my frequently ridden hobby horses – it is also somewhat sinister. When a politician or a bureaucrat or a spokesman for some public or private monolith uses the ‘A’ word it’s like a signal. It means the opposite to what is being conveyed. “Absolutely” meaning “yes” is at best hypocritical, often a downright lie. Having “absolutely no intention” of doing something usually means the contrary. Making oneself “absolutely clear” means “I’m the one in charge, mate, so what I say goes.”