By winning an Olympic gold medal, swimmer Adam Peaty momentarily blinded us all with a ray of sunshine.
That temporary disability was welcomed by the aesthetically sensitive souls among us. For that fleeting moment at least, we were spared the sight of Peaty’s arms, densely tattooed from the shoulders all the way down.
However, having regained my eyesight, I was left feeling sorry that my hearing remained intact. For the English language suffered yet another defeat in the aftermath of Peaty’s victory.
When interviewed by the BBC, Peaty, still struggling for breath, explained how he got his triumph and what it meant to him: “It’s the best person on the day, who’s the most adaptable – and really who fucking wants it more. It just means the world to me. I knew it was going to take every bit of energy and I’m just so fucking relieved.”
This isn’t the first gold medal Peaty has ever won, and he is used to being interviewed. Hence one would think that by now he should have learned to refrain from the use of that intensifying expletive on live TV.
Such a hope is naïve. He should have, and could have, learned to express his joy less obscenely – but he doesn’t feel he has to. Nor does the BBC evidently feel the need to bleep out four-letter words. After all, Peaty has made us all proud, and the lad has earned the right to use his natural idiom.
But that’s not the affront to the English language I felt most acutely, although it’s offensive enough. What came later was worse, much worse.
After all, while being ubiquitous in everyday speech (sometimes even mine, I have to admit), crude terms for sexual intercourse, sex organs and certain Oedipal practices are still relatively rare in journalism, if not in films.
And, while wholeheartedly sympathetic to those of my friends who cringe on hearing swearwords, I am not particularly shocked by them. I know I should be, but I am not. And nor am I going to pretend otherwise, hypocritically.
What really did shock me was Kate Burley’s programme on Sky News. She interviewed Peaty’s parents, trying to get to the bottom of their proud elation. Both the mother and especially the father were rather monosyllabic in their replies, although there was no doubting their joy.
However, never once did Miss Burley refer to the parents as ‘mother’ and ‘father’. It was always ‘mum’ and ‘dad’.
Now, the obscene intensifier hasn’t yet ousted others, such as ‘very’, ‘extremely’ or, in a more rarefied social atmosphere, ‘jolly’. But have you noticed that nobody says ‘mother’ and ‘father’ any longer?
‘Mum’ and ‘dad’, or the more upscale variants ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, aren’t grown-up speech. No one whose age has reached double digits should use such words to describe his or anyone else’s parents, even if he addresses them in that fashion.
Yet the grown-up, stylistically neutral and time-proven ‘mother’ and ‘father’ have practically disappeared from English. Medics talk about care for expectant mums, social services about dads’ disappearance, hacks apparently feel that anything other than coochy-coochy-coo mawkishness would bespeak gross insensitivity.
Christians still refrain from praying to “Holy Mary, Mum of God”, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all major denominations were to switch to such usage. Modernity is like God; it must be obeyed.
Now, regular visitors to this space know that I regard many manifestations of modernity as emetic. But few are more stomach-churning than its inexorable tendency towards creeping infantilism and cloying sentimentality.
‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ ousting ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ is an embodiment of both. Could it be that Britain is suffering from some sort of aesthetic Covid, whose principal symptom is loss of taste?
Good taste is to me the most lamentable casualty we have suffered, worse even than the pervasive deficit of intellect and morality. Or perhaps it’s wrong to separate them.
Taking their cue from Aristotle, Western thinkers have regarded the transcendentals (beauty, truth and goodness) as coextensive ontological properties of man. The deficit in one would lead to a shortage of the others, and the subject in question is a good illustration.
No grown-up using ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ as neutral descriptors can possibly have good taste in anything. Nor can he approach any kind of truth – and I’d even go out on a limb by questioning his moral sense as well.
That’s what reverting to childhood does: children typically haven’t yet developed their taste, mind and morality. And with the adult world around them eager to meet them halfway, chances are they never will.