Having abandoned all hope of ever cranking up my body into life in the morning, I try to get my mind started instead. To that end I do a couple of easy crosswords, which sometimes makes me think about our great language.
We get words second-hand, after they’ve been used by a chastening number of generations. To make verbal discourse possible, those generations had to agree on the meaning of words and stick to that agreement.
They, the generations that produced John Donne and Anthony Trollope, didn’t feel that words mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean. We, the generation that produced Don Brown and Joanna Trollope, think they must.
Well, you know what I mean, says a modern man using ‘masterful’ to mean ‘masterly’. No, I don’t, my friend. Are you sure you do?
In fact, lexical laxity is a distinguishing feature of modernity, what with its understated education and overstated solipsism. Look at one clue in today’s crossword, for example: “Essential aspects (5-6)”, with me expected to write in ‘nitty-gritty’. But that’s not what nitty-gritty means.
It means fine, basic details. Such details may be essential, but then again they may not, as anyone will agree who has ever foolishly said ‘nice car’ to a boffin and received a lecture on McPherson struts and slip differentials in return.
Here’s another clue in the same crossword: ‘Deep admiration (7)’. Would you guess that the answer is supposed to be ‘respect’?
Admiration and respect are two different things. For instance, I respect our cleaning lady for being honest and conscientious, but I don’t admire her.
It’s not just crosswords either, as I found today by visiting the National Portrait Gallery. Hanging on the fence was an expensively produced poster advertising an exhibition of Admiral Nelson’s portraits. It’s called Nauseous Sailor.
Now in the language of William Shakespeare ‘nauseous’ means ‘disgusting’, ‘vomit-inducing’. Surely that’s putting it too strongly, I thought. Nelson had his failings, a propensity to consort with courtesans for one, but he’s generally regarded as a decent sailor.
In fact, the square next to the Gallery is named after one of Nelson’s exploits. You know, the one in which he established that Britain was a naval power and France wasn’t, a state of affairs that lasted until Dave bought a time share on a French carrier. Could a nation really have thus honoured a ‘disgusting’ sailor?
It didn’t. By erecting Nelson’s Column, the nation honoured its great hero. Unfortunately, the same nation later did to its education what Nelson had done to Villeneuve’s navy. The broadsides were so overpowering that even today’s supposedly literate curators don’t know the difference between ‘nauseous’ and ‘nauseated’. The institution once graced by the directorship of the erudite, elegant writer Kenneth Clark is now led by ignoramuses.
Why not just call the exhibition Seasick Sailor? Sea sickness is the unambiguous description of Nelson’s affliction – after all, a sailor can be nauseated (or ‘nauseous’ in the ignoramuses’ lingo) for a variety of reasons, such as too much grog, or else constant exposure to pretentious pseuds.
All this sounds trivial, and so it would be if it weren’t a symptom of a general malaise. For anyone who uses words loosely thinks loosely, which makes him easy prey to those who use language to deceive.
Thus when a politician talks about social justice, few realise he means the injustice of dispossessing hard-working people in favour of idlers. When he mentions cooperation with Europe, few understand this means overturning 2,000 years of British political history. And when he preaches respect for different cultures, many overlook that he means destroying our own.
Much as we may despise conspiracy theories, one finds it hard to believe that our educational catastrophe is a result of honest errors. Some deliberate design is discernible behind the concerted drive to disengage people from their culture, including their language.
Our ‘leaders’ believe that stuffing the people with bread and keeping them half-catatonic with circuses will keep them docile. The blighters only ever sound alarm bells when they realise that our moron-spewing ‘education’ produces millions of unemployable savages.
All those Poles and Estonians, some of them not speaking a word of English, come here and within a few months take jobs the Brits are no longer qualified to do. Since people don’t starve to death in civilised countries, the state has to feed those underachieving Brits, which as a side benefit makes them likely to vote for those who promise to feed them better.
Our ‘leaders’ generally think this is a fair deal but, with the economy being what it is, feeding a burgeoning army of illiterate idlers lowers the standard of living for everyone else.
Since those who thereby suffer still outnumber the loafers, an electoral calamity may become a distinct possibility. It’s only at this point that politicians try to paper over the spidery cracks in our ‘education system’.
Otherwise, reducing a great nation to anomic barbarism is perfectly fine with them. That’s actually a clue in another crossword: “savage (8)”. ‘Barbarian’ is supposed to be the answer, a typically imprecise one.