Listening to the commentators at the Australian Open is hard going for anyone who loves the English language as much as I do. Just two examples, off the top:
“She hits the ball hard in spite of her physicality.” The word you were looking for, dear, was ‘physique’. If it was the player’s physicality you wished to highlight, then the proper preceding phrase would have been ‘because’, not ‘in spite of’.
Or, “I referenced his backhand earlier.” ‘To reference’ means to cite the source of a claim. ‘To refer [to]’ means to mention, which would have been the right word there.
These mistakes aren’t as bad as their origin: the prole belief that adding syllables adds sophistication no matter what. Actually, it doesn’t, even when the words are used correctly. When they aren’t, the effect is as risible as it’s upsetting.
That gets me back to one of my pet themes: issuing licences to use words of more than two syllables. A simple test should establish eligibility, with questions like “Choose the right word: the performance was [masterful, masterly], every nuance came delicately shaped.”
Such a procedure wouldn’t just protect the curmudgeonly sensibilities of an old pedant like me. Above all, it would have an outside chance of saving the greatest language on earth from mangling vandalism.
Oh well, that will have to remain a cherished dream. However, one has to take issue with one axiomatic assumption of liberal ideology: the advisability, indeed virtue, of universal literacy.
Since any ideology ends up delivering results opposite to its proclaimed aims, a politically motivated commitment to make everyone literate is guaranteed to make most people illiterate.
This is borne out empirically. In Victorian England, before literacy was declared to be a social-engineering hoist lifting the downtrodden masses out of their misery, 97 per cent of the population were literate. Today, after liberal notions have indeed become axiomatic, that rate is 10 per cent lower.
Literacy in this statistic means being able to read simple texts, such as road signs, fluently and without moving one’s lips. Climbing up from that basic requirement, we’ll get to a higher plateau: the ability to use words in their true meaning and arranged according to the demands of proper grammar.
Now that height is beyond the reach of most of our comprehensively educated masses, as it always was even before education became comprehensive. But there is a difference: in the past, people unable to use English properly didn’t get to parade their ignorance in the public arena, especially in a professional journalistic capacity.
And I’m not talking about a very distant past either. Anyone who listened to the wireless in the ‘50s, watched TV in the ‘60s or read the papers in the ‘70s will confirm that my vituperative attacks on egalitarianism aren’t wholly groundless.
Alas, turning English into a heap of solecisms is part of the general vulgarisation of life. And the latter, in turn, proves a law of nature to which there are no known exceptions: everything that requires discernment will be destroyed if made available to the masses.
Modernity is mindlessly committed to the elevation of the common man, but this goal is unachievable in any other than the crudest material sense. Yet ideology prevents this demonstrable truth from ever being mentioned.
Today’s malcontents are out to destroy the hierarchical social structure. They don’t realise that, when that pyramid collapses, it will bury culture under the rubble.
For the masses won’t rise up to the level of cultural subtleties – they’ll force them to tumble down to their own level. Poetry will be reduced to doggerel, literature to potboilers, music to easy listening at best and anti-musical satanic chants at worst, politics to Rishi Sunak.
And English will plummet into the linguistic gutter inhabited by the masses, out of whose ranks sports journalists are being plucked.
Now I’d better shut up, just in case. I’m sure elitism will be criminalised before long, and there’s no guarantee that law won’t be made retroactive.