« Tourists Beware | Main | The Name to Fit »


Last night I went to see a (very good) film. Of course, before it began there were the usual ads and trailers. One of these promised that the film it trailed would be 'totally unique'.  I was so distracted by this claim that I didn't take in what the name of this film was. What about slightly unique? Or relatively unique?

From this you can, indeed you should, conclude that I am what David Foster Wallace called a snoot (picky about language, bordering on pedantic) - and proud to be. I can be thrown off whatever course I am on when I hear someone say that something has been over-hyped or over-exaggerated. Words matter, and thinking about what they mean matters too. If we don't think about words we may end up at the wrong end of oppression - if, that is, there is a right one.

Am I overdoing it? I don't think so. Yes, okay, misusing the odd word when it's more or less clear what you want to say is no sin or crime or anything deserving punishment. But in the long run punishment might be what we get. Governments and demagogues who would like to be government rely on lack of attention to language.

As English-speakers we are lucky and relatively protected. But beware. In the 80s I produced a series of radio programmes about writers and politics. One of the contributors was Arthur Miller who was very exercised by what was happening at the time in still-communist still-Czechoslovakia. Czech and Slovak are minority languages: only Czechs and Slovaks speak them. If their government takes the language over, he said, and make words mean what the authorities want - as was indeed the case - while at the same picking off the few guardians of the language,the serious writers, then there was no longer a medium for expressing anything other than the government's version of the truth. English-speakers are rescued by each other - in India and Barbados, Canada and New Zealand, London and New York and Lagos. Something fresh will always come through.

But. When we don't pay attention to the nonsense all corporations now perpetrate in place of language - and I mean ALL big business, ALL large institutions including to my sorrow the BBC, we end up accepting euphemisms like collateral damage and extraordinary rendition as normal vocabulary. Or perhaps it's the final solution. We may not as individuals have done the damaging or rendering but having yielded the descriptions of them to mendacious government we are nonetheless responsible. All because we started by letting 'totally unique' pass us by. 

Don't lets ever say to ourselves or anyone else, Oh, it's just a form of words, a manner of speaking. No, it isn't. It's a failure to think. Set aside a lot of time (you will need it); then read David Foster Wallace who coined the word snoot (I think). He was brought up to be one. He is dead. But before he committed suicide he was an extraordinary writer.

By the way, I recommend the film I did see. "The Past", a French language Iranian-directed little masterpiece by Asghar Farhadi who was also responsible for the incomparable "A Separation".

Posted on Friday, April 11, 2014 at 04:04AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>