Buzz words keep buzzing

Mr and Mrs Polymath

Congratulations to Avicenna, Hildegard of Bingen, Leonardo, Descartes and Goethe. They, along with a few other overachievers, have earned the posthumous honour of being mentioned in the same breath as Idris Elba.

You see, according to The Times, Mr Elba is a polymath, which is another one of those annoying words that buzz. Everyone is a polymath these days, or alternatively a Renaissance man. If you have a hobby or two, you are a polymath.

A polymath is a CPA who can play Chopsticks and make scrambled eggs. Or a tennis player who tattoos a Dostoyevsky saying on his forearm (I didn’t make this up). Or anyone who can do better than Gerald Ford, who, according to Lyndon Johnson, couldn’t “walk and fart at the same time”. (Prudish commentators distort LBJ’s putdown by replacing the second activity with an anodyne “… and chew gum…”. That’s like cooking chilli con carne with no chillies in it.)

And as to Mr Elba – well, those polymaths of the past I’ve mentioned must be turning green wherever they are. They couldn’t even dream of diversifying into so many areas.

To quote our formerly respectable newspaper: “Idris Elba – actor, rapper, DJ, music producer, podcast host and champagne maker – admits that he annoys people by adding so many side lines to his CV. Elba, 51, made his name in television shows such as The Wire and Luther but has since become one of Hollywood’s best-known polymaths, trying his hand at professional kickboxing and launching a skincare brand with his wife, the model Sabrina Dhowre.”

Well, I never. It’s amazing how many great talents can find a home in one man’s breast. Envy isn’t one of the cardinal sins I commit often, but I can see how many people may envy such earth-shattering versatility.

Mr Elba can see it too: “I think I do irritate some people, who think ‘fucking hell, Idris Elba is doing something else today’.” Leonardo could have said the same thing about himself, in Italian.

You can probably detect a touch of sarcasm, and fair enough: it’s there. But it’s not aimed at Mr Elba and his multiple interests. I’m sure he’s an impressive chap, and his wife looks stunning. My problem is with words that buzz in unison with modernity by taking on jobs other than their own. They end up meaning so much that they mean nothing, leaving English so much the poorer.

The dictionary defines polymath as “a person of wide knowledge or learning”. With all due respect, an “actor, rapper, DJ, music producer, podcast host and champagne maker” doesn’t quite qualify, even if he does add a bit of kickboxing on the side.

Deepening my search, I dipped into Wikipedia to find out that a polymath “is an individual whose knowledge spans many different subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.”

Call me an inveterate snob with a bias against, well, actors, but that’s not quite Mr Elba either. I don’t think any of his numerous activities involve delving into “complex bodies of knowledge”. Champagne making may be a possible if trivial exception, but even there I’m sure Mr Elba hired professional vintners to handle things like riddling or primary and secondary fermentation.

I sometimes make fun of the solecisms streaming out of the mouths of sports commentators on TV. ‘Lacksadaisical’ is one of my favourites, and I’ve heard it used by too many pundits to count. But most of such pundits are former footballers, whose chosen academic subjects were Sliding Tackle and Reverse Pass. Someone who ever saw Glenn Hoddle play can forgive his mangling of the English language, concentrating instead on his ball-kicking insights.

Yet even professional TV journalists don’t know how to use the word ‘amount’. They all talk about the amount of injuries a player has suffered or the amount of goals he has scored. The word is ‘number’, chaps. It stands for countable things, whereas ‘amount’ refers to uncountable ones.

Thus, a staggering number of hacks display a regrettable amount of ignorance. As that polymath John von Neuman would have said, it’s not rocket science.

It’s not just lexicography but also grammar and phonetics that fall victim to our comprehensively risible education. Thus no one ever sits or stands in our TV studios; everyone is sat or stood. How much contempt for our beautiful language does it take to utter such ugliness? A huge amount (not number).

The French Open is now on, and the two principal courts at Roland Garros now have roofs over them. All tennis commentators mention this fact, invariably pronouncing that word as ‘rooves’.

Even Tim ‘Salt of the Earth’ Henman, who grew up with a tennis court in his garden and went to a private school (not ‘public’, as one of my pedantic readers would point out), thinks that, if we say ‘hooves’, ‘halves’ and ‘wives’, we should also say ‘rooves’. He must have been sat in the back row when English was taught, thinking any amount of thoughts about sliced backhands.

(This isn’t as bad a solecism as some of the others I mention, because ‘rooves’ was widely used in the 18th century. Yet even then it wasn’t standard, and 300 years later it’s simply wrong.)

Every time one turns on the TV, reads the paper, or simply listens to people talking on the bus, one witnesses frontal assaults on English. People say (or write!) ‘disinterested’ instead of ‘uninterested’, ‘masterful’ instead of ‘masterly’, ‘simplistic’ instead of simple’, ‘fulsome’ instead of ‘wholehearted’, ‘innocuous’ instead of ‘innocent’, ‘naturalistic’ instead of ‘natural’, ‘risqué’ instead of ‘risky’.

And my particular bugbear is ‘willy-nilly’, which even relatively educated people seem to think means ‘at will’. It doesn’t. The expression comes from the Latin volens nolens, and it means ‘whether you want it or not’, ‘under duress’. You can’t just use language willy-nilly.

As they commit those lex crimes, the English language shrinks before our very eyes or, worse still, sinks into the fetid gutter of ideological ignorance. People talk and write that way because they’ve been taught that such trifles don’t matter. They are the reins the toffs use to control the masses. Ideological ignorance is thus the artillery of class struggle.

If you want to trace this abomination to its source, just look up an old issue of The Times or any other reputable newspaper, or listen to a BBC broadcast of 60 years ago. You won’t find anything other than impeccable English there, with things like proper grammar simply not an issue.

Journalists, print or broadcast, were in those days judged on the precision and elegance of their style. It was taken for granted that they used vocabulary and grammar correctly. And then the powers that be felt the urge to reform our supposedly class-conscious education, shoving its face into Anthony Crosland’s excretions.

That started a process at the end of which nothing is right or wrong, everything is allowed, and Idris Elba is a polymath. God bless his cotton socks.

3 thoughts on “Buzz words keep buzzing”

  1. Thank you for writing in support of our beautiful English language.

    For anyone not sure of how to write correctly I recommend “The Complete Plain Words” by Sir Ernest Gowers.

    Thankfully we can still read books that were well written and by doing so encourage ourselves to think clearly.

    1. To a linguistic ultra-conservative like me, Gowers is a heretic. Read the Fowler brothers’ The King’s English instead! Better still, read Thomas Malory, the translators of the King James Bible and (if you’re willing to spend some time in preliminary study of Old English) King Alfred the Great’s brief annotations to the Book of Psalms.

      You’re right that clear thinking depends on clear language. But it isn’t easy to acquire clear language today without hard work, including the repudiation of most of the language we read and hear. Does pure diction lead to pure thoughts? Perhaps it does, and I think St John the Divine agrees: he was dumb until an angel touched his mouth.

      But if you choose to stick with Gowers … oh well, he’s better than anything more recent!

  2. And here I thought a polymath was someone who could perform multiplication as well as division.
    Perhaps these modern polymaths are described sarcastically? I think we should be amazed that an actor can also do something else. Of course, as was stated in the article, in most cases the money made from acting is used to pay others to run a business. That requires nothing more than a smart financial advisor and seed money.

    I have noticed that most people now use “further” exclusively, to the point where “farther” is no longer used. Twenty years ago it was the exact opposite. Either case drives me batty. I cringe at the misuse of much/many and have spent too much time explaining that “any more” is a poor substitute for “no longer”. The use of “there’s” for plural subjects is another example that I hear far too often. I have to laugh when such poor grammar is used in television shows where the characters are supposed to be smart and well educated. My wife and I laugh that the writers are obviously far inferior to the characters they are trying to portray. (Proved in place of proven is another common mistake.) It is a sad commentary that with my poor education I should be upset by such things. (I remember a friend of mine diagramming a sentence during lunch at our high school and thinking, “I’m glad I don’t have to do that!”)

    I agree with Mr. Bannister that reading classics is a great step toward thinking and speaking clearly.

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