Democracy makes language funny

Everything in life, from governing a big state to running a small household, must have a hierarchical structure. Remove that, and chaos ensues.

A priori, football is a good game, but in extremis it can be grosso modo boring

Western civilisation was based on the understanding that, in matters secular, all men aren’t created equal. Modernity overturned this understanding by claiming the opposite was “self-evident” (meaning it could be neither proved nor demonstrated).

Since then the West has been trying to shoehorn reality into the confines of this fallacy. And some things have proved elastic enough to withstand such treatment.

For example, Western economy has benefited, on balance, from the democratic ability to spread wealth as widely as possible. Stratification remains, of course, and always will. But the lower strata are doing better than they’ve ever done at any other time or in any other place.

However, even there democracy isn’t an unqualified success. One of its by-products is a vast parasitic underclass born out of the culture of entitlement implicit in egalitarianism. This creates conditions for economic catastrophes, for Western governments have to live way beyond their means to accommodate millions of economic spongers.

Still, perfection is unattainable in this world. Even in today’s promiscuous corporatist economies, anybody who really wants to make a decent living can do so, provided he applies much – possibly all – of himself to that task.

This is manifestly not the case with the finer things in life, those dealing with the spirit rather than the stomach. There, an attempt to remove hierarchical tiers is tantamount to wanton destruction.

For, while the simple task of making a living isn’t beyond most people, the difficult task of acquiring real culture is. That’s why comprehensive education is an oxymoron: the more comprehensive it is, the less it’ll educate.

Some things just aren’t meant for wide consumption. Music, real music that is, is one example: it was created for few by fewer. Once the culture of patronage by the few went the way of most social hierarchies, music had to be financed by box office receipts.

Hence it had to become democratic, with millions of people voting with their cash for the kind of performances they liked. Music thus had to cater to common (in the sense of both general and crude) tastes, which gradually led it from the sublime to the cor-blime.

These days, concert platforms proudly feature fleet-fingered semi-nude girls as full of breast as they are empty of mind, who succeed in lowering the most magnificent creation of man’s spirit to the level of pop excretions.

The same democratic egalitarianism is ruining languages. There too, a little learning is all that’s widely available, for the simple reason that most people aren’t capable of absorbing more than that.

Alexander Pope warned of the concomitant dangers three centuries ago: “A little learning is a dangerous thing;// drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:// there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,// and drinking largely sobers us again.”

Apart from creating a popular expression, Pope communicated the lamentable fact that most people can’t drink deep – shallow draughts of learning are all they can manage.

Yet democracy promotes a sense of not only economic but also cultural entitlement. The assumption is that, since we’re all created equal, we’re also created equally cultured.

Before that fallacy took hold, language had been as stratified as the social hierarchy. There existed broad swathes of lexicon that were the exclusive domain of seriously educated people. The rest had no access to such vocabulary and thus were in no position to mangle it.

The democratic presupposition put paid to such exclusivity. A little knowledge is now universally available, and people do avail themselves of it. The results can be comic.

Now, I’ve never met an educated person who’d mock an uneducated one for using plain words of one or two syllables. On the contrary, such a chap is often praised for expressing himself clearly and unpretentiously.

However, neither have I ever met an educated person able to suppress a sardonic smile when an ignoramus misuses a long word or a foreign expression.

Actually, the French are even likelier than we are to provide such entertainment. They still teach things like philosophy and Latin at school, which exacerbates the natural French tendency to intellectual posturing.

Thus you can hear French football commentators (football commentators, for heaven’s sake!) utter astounding sentences, such as: “He’s a superlative player a priori, but in extremis he may be grosso modo careless in front of the goal.”

What’s wrong with, say, “He’s a good player, but he misses many sitters under pressure”? If you have to ask, you aren’t French.

Our commentators misuse words too, but at least they shun Latin solecisms – not because they know that a priori means ‘based on a self-evident postulate’, not ‘at first glance’, but because their comprehensive education kept such phrases off-limits. Nor do they share their French counterparts’ compulsion to sound like homespun philosophers.

Nevertheless, we too have to smile at numerous attempts by democratically egalitarian people to sound sophisticated. Thus, every time I hear someone say “it reaches a crescendo”, I have the same involuntary reaction as Himmler is, wrongly, believed to have had when hearing the word ‘culture’.

‘Crescendo’, lads, is a way of reaching a point, not the point reached, but that knowledge has fallen through the cracks in our comprehensive education.

And it’s not just long words but also foreign phrases that are bent out of shape by untutored hands. For example, describing a highly exclusive party in an interview, Helen Mirren once said that “all the hoi polloi were there.”

It would be unnecessarily pedantic to point out that, because ‘hoi polloi’ means ‘the many’ in Greek, preceding it with the definite article is like saying ‘the the many’. But, God bless her, our celebrated actress actually thinks the expression means ‘high society’, which is, well, funny.

For fear of boring you, I’ll spare you a long list of foreign-sounding words and phrases that are routinely disfigured in the public domain where they don’t belong. Suffice it to say that democracy won’t be kept within the confines of politics.

It sends shock waves throughout society, and in some areas they have the same effect as Hurricane Dorian has had on the Bahamas.

2 thoughts on “Democracy makes language funny”

  1. “‘there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,// and drinking largely sobers us again.’”

    Is Pope talking about Cable Network News? A screen with a moderator and then four insets all at once being displayed. Overwhelms your brain and you are unable to concentrate on even one item.

  2. “a vast parasitic underclass born out of the culture of entitlement implicit in egalitarianism”

    The welfare state in all manifestations. Began in earnest during the period of the Great Depression and never looked back. Was called originally RELIEF and was not meant to be permanent, on a supplement. But has become anything but that. Is now EXPECTED and what is received by the “parasite” is never enough or good enough.

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