Alan Titchmarsh: our evolving English language is amazeballs
We have the most expressive language in the world, and the fact that it continues to be as flexible as music is a real joy
The Telegraph August 24, 2014
If you ask me, I think it’s really wicked that “amazeballs” has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Of course, there will be those who throw up their hands in horror that the sacred English language – which, in the words of that noted philologist and phoneticist Prof Henry Higgins, is the language of Shakespeare and Milton – is at the mercy of young upstarts who coin words as frequently as they take a shower; but then, in some instances, that may be an unfortunate analogy.
And yet it is refreshing that the language we use every day has the capacity to be so flexible. You can’t say that about Latin. The only objection I have with such words entering the OED is their lack of potential durability. How soon will “amazeballs” fall out of favour?
My children took up the word “cool” with the rest of their peers 20 years ago, and admitted recently, that the word became less “cool” when they discovered that we, their parents, had used it half a century earlier when the Beatles were at the height of their fame.
Will the OED banish “amazeballs” from their pages when it is no longer common currency? I doubt it, for it is then of historic interest and will, no doubt, bear the explanation: “early 21st century, regarded by the youth of the day as particularly noteworthy”. Treated so matter-of-factly, it doesn’t seem nearly quite so amazeballs.
Not having a copy of the half-ton OED at my elbow, I cannot tell you whether “fan-dabby-dozy ” has made it into this sacred tome. It certainly deserves inclusion since it has a very similar meaning to “amazeballs” and was coined a good 30 years ago by those Scottish guardians of the English language, the Krankies. It quickly slipped into common parlance and, in some quarters, has stood the test of time. There is a chance that it may enjoy a renaissance next month, should Scotland decide to go it alone, for it is bound to feature in the victory speech of Alex Salmond.
Cast your mind back to the Sixties and you may recall a bevy of words that had their birth in Liverpool. While the expression “cool” was certainly current back then, and “fab”, the diminutive of “fabulous” was oft heard. So too was “gear”, describing something that was the height of fashion.
Even the French took it up. I remember seeing a newspaper headline stating “Ze Beatles are ze gear!” I rarely hear it nowadays.
Two words that were found even more frequently on the lips of the nation back then were coined by Norman Vaughan on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. “Swinging” (accompanied by a thumbs-up gesture) meant “good, laudable, deserving of approbation” (you see how easy it is to lapse into dictionary-speak?); while “dodgy” (accompanied by a thumbs-down gesture after the fashion of a Roman emperor dissatisfied by a gladiatorial performance in the Colosseum) meant “unreliable and of dubious taste”. The gestures may have survived but the words have not.
I am not above coining words myself. “Extreedingly” is a favourite – a hybrid of “extremely” and “exceedingly” – but it is used only at home and unlikely to make it into the OED. Then there are words that are coined by chance, occasionally out of frustration. When cut up by another driver while out in the car one day, I sought for an expletive. There were two small children sitting in the back seat, so I wanted to avoid the kind of language they might pick up and repeat. Instead, I spat out, with the necessary venom: “You… prangle!” Quite where it came from or what its derivation I cannot say, but it has passed into our domestic vocabulary as a suitable appellation for anyone who is less than considerate towards us on the road.
Some words have been handed down to me by older relatives. My Auntie Jenny described my grandmother’s particularly stiff porridge as “clarty”. My mother called stale crisps “foisty”. I use both words today as though they were the norm. When I am cold I am “nithered” and a narrow alley between houses is a “snicket” or a “ginnel”, but now I am slipping into words typical of certain dialects. This is a whole different ball game.
And yet, while I like the sentimentality of regional expressions and think new words can be refreshing, I am irritated by the kind of laziness that results in such language as: “He was like, 'Are you coming, then?’, and I’m like, 'No, I’m not’.” Where did “I’m like” come from? Why not say “I said”?
Then there is the whole “yes, no” scenario. How many times a day do you hear someone say, in response to a question: “yes, no” or, worse, “yeah, no”?
There is a difference between speech that develops from laziness and that which comes about as a conscious effort to be more expressive. Like it or not, “amazeballs” has a bit of inventiveness about it. What’s more, it’s fun; it makes us smile. Well, some of us.
So I shall continue to listen to my children and grandchildren when their vocabulary expands. To be gifted with, perhaps, the most expressive language in the world is a great blessing, and the fact that it continues to be as flexible as music is a joy. The Germans may coin longer words with more syllables than ours, but then they really just join a lot of them together to make a new one. I reckon that is not nearly so amazeballs as what we do. Innit?