This week sees the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the 50th of the assassination of JFK. There can hardly be another few days commemorating such a highpoint and such a low point in American history. Abraham Lincoln and John F.Kennedy are notable examples of leaders who possessed genuine oratorical power, a subject I talk about in my book, The Story of English. Barack Obama sometimes shows the same oratorical skill even if the reality has tended to slip away from the rhetoric, something which is hardly unique to his presidency.
While presidential oratory flourishes in the US, with a few exceptions like the Bushes (father and son), the prime ministerial equivalent in Britain sounds effortful. There have been no really memorable PM speakers in the last fifty years. Harold Macmillan didn’t exactly have the common touch; Harold Wilson did, but couldn’t do flights of oratory. Thatcher hectored while Blair’s speeches were constructed out of sound-bites, like Lego, and Cameron is rarely better than smooth.
It’s partly the occasion, of course. Lincoln’s address at the Gettysburg military cemetery took place during the Civil War, just as Churchill’s famous speeches were wartime ones. But it’s also the content and the approach: Lincoln delivered little more than 250 words in about two minutes. The language is extremely simple but organised according to sophisticated rhetorical rules, using variation and balance. Similarly, in his Inauguration Speech of January 1961, President Kennedy used simple words but complicated devices such as chiasmus, where the order of words is paralleled and reversed (‘And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’) There is a string of Latin and Greek terms like chiasmus, a reminder of the age-old connection between rhetoric, persuasion and politics.
Christmas is coming and the big chains are rolling out their big ad campaigns. John Lewis specialises in classy mini-films combining good taste, deep pockets and a touch of schmaltz. According to their marketing manager, they’re conscious of the dangers of over-reaching and the criticism that might follow. It’s the tall poppy syndrome, he says.
The roots of the ‘tall poppy’ seem to go back thousands of years to the legend of Tarquin, king of Rome. When asked what should be done with the occupants of a neighbouring and hostile city, he replied by going into his palace garden and striking the heads off the tallest poppies. His silent message was that the most prominent citizens of the enemy city should be disposed of. This tall poppy syndrome is made up of envy, spite and fear.
When voiced by a politician it can become part of an egalitarian programme, as it was for the premier of New South Wales in 1931 who explicitly stated his policy to be one of ‘cutting the heads off tall poppies’. By contrast, Margaret Thatcher, speaking in New York in 1975 before becoming Prime Minister, reversed the message: ‘I believe you have a saying in the Middle West: “Don’t cut down the tall poppies. Let them rather grow tall.” I would say, let our children grow tall and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so.’
Is it true that tall poppy syndrome, in the grudging sense, has always grown readily in Australia, where it seems to have originated, and in most other English-speaking countries apart from the United States, where it’s a cue for emulation not envy? Probably so. Americans like to see themselves as big-hearted, aspirational etc. The British and the rest are much more a bunch of levellers.
The current showdown in Washington over the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and, soon, the debt ceiling has caused large chunks of the administration to close down, with government employees being sent home on unpaid furlough (aka leave). Furlough is one of those terms which sounds strange to British ears, since it tends to appear only in military contexts, and dated ones at that: ‘Officers not on furlough … are to join their corps without delay’ directed the Duke of Wellington in a dispatch of 1804.
When it is not attractively antique, US political terminology has an odd vigour which we lack on this side of the Atlantic. Take filibustering - talking at length to block legislation - which was given a 21-hour airing recently by a senator from Texas who, to pass his time and waste everyone else’s, read from a Dr Seuss story. The origin of the word is more romantic than the practice since it comes from a Dutch expression (vrijbuiter) related to ‘freebooter’, one who goes after plunder or ‘booty’.
Other striking American terms include gerrymandering or boundary-fiddling to improve your party’s chances in an election; third-rail to describe issues which are dangerous for a politician to touch (after the third electrified rail on the subway); and boondoggle, characterising something between a freebie and a scam.
The only example I can think of where British usage is more graphic than the American equivalent is the way in which parliamentary debates can be limited: here it’s referred to as a guillotine procedure while in the US it is known as a cloture vote (from the French for ‘closure’).
The current cluster of programmes on Radio 3 about film music, together with a couple of concerts in this year’s Proms, show that what’s sometimes been dismissed as aural wallpaper is being heard afresh and, in some cases, appreciated for the first time. There’s certainly more screen music to be heard. One of the disconcerting things about watching a film from the 1960s or 70s is that quite lengthy periods can pass without any music at all. Now directors and/or composers seem unwilling, even frightened, by the prospect of letting more than a few moments go by without some stirring chord or a moody nudge from the soundtrack. The rise of big CGI effects in particular has made for a surge of bombastic scoring.
Considering how prevalent music is in film it’s odd how rarely it’s actually incorporated into the story, so that the sound we hear is the same as the sound being heard by the people on screen. Apart from those rare films specifically dedicated to music-making, on-screen music is mostly confined to the muzak in shopping malls (cue a chase), or the occasional shot of a stylus being lowered onto an old disc (we’re in the 1920s) or being raspingly torn away (someone is angry).
I discover from a helpful and entertaining new word book, Hubert van den Bergh’s How to Sound Really Clever, that there’s a term for this second kind of sound, the in-built one: diegetic sound is part of the fictional world experienced by the characters, whether it’s a concert attended by the couple in a romcom or the crash of cymbals designed to hide the sound of a gunshot, as in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. An example of non-diegetic music is the stabbing score to the shower murder in Psycho.
The economist Ann Pettifor recently coined the expression ‘Alice in Wongaland’ to describe the shaky recovery which the coalition government is doing its best to cry up. In a follow-up article she characterised the ‘high-debt, low-wage [British] economy’ as ‘the road to Wongaland.’
Wonga is the best-known of the payday loan companies which have sprung up in the last few years and which, like food-banks, are a sign of the success of the government’s policies. The names of these companies - Sunny is another example - are chosen to gloss over the hard-nosed business calculations which drive them. Like a handful of other slang terms, wonga is Romani in origin, meaning ‘coal’ or ‘money’. The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that the coal reference‘may be due to a Romani practice of collecting coal fallen from passing trains for use as currency.’
There are a large number of off-beat expressions for money, a reflection of how central it is to our lives, and wonga is a notably slangy and seemingly innocuous one. The Wonga company reinforces its image - slightly wacky, just a bit of a laugh - with some delightful adverts featuring goggle-eyed OAP puppets. Those with longer memories may recall the Wonga Coup, in which a band of mercenaries bankrolled by Mark Thatcher among others failed to overthrow a central African government. When the Eton-educated ring-leader ended up in jail he wrote to his backers saying that he’d need a ‘large splodge of wonga’ to get out of the mess he was in. This was probably the first time wonga and mercenaries appeared in the same context.
A couple of months ago one of these words was neutral and the other a Latin plural, but thanks to the Snowden leaks we know now that PRISM is the code name for the eavesdropping system which gives ‘our’ intelligence agencies access to our e-mails while TEMPORA describes the programme which burrows into undersea cables carrying phone calls and web traffic. This innovation, apparently the work of Britain’s doughnut-shaped GCHQ at Cheltenham, then stores the information for up to 30 days.
Who came up with these names? They’re a bit too good to be the work of a committee. PRISM, originating from the US, sounds better than Jason Bourne’s plodding TREADSTONE and is perhaps the brainchild of someone familiar with ’70s conspiracy thrillers. TEMPORA is odder. Either it is a misprint for TEMPURA or it is the Latin plural of TEMPUS and so ‘times’ - which fits with the idea of storing information. The Guardian, which first broke this story, recently described the people needed at GCHQ as technologists and mathematicians, with a sprinkling of accountants and librarians. But no classicists. Presumably this is to differentiate Cheltenham’s glossy doughnut from the huts of tweedy old Bletchley with its WW2 mix of boffins, clergymen’s daughters, crossword-solvers, cryptanalysts, poets and historians.
But TEMPORA has the fingerprint of a classicist. ‘O tempora, o mores’ was Cicero’s lament applied to his own age and literally means ‘Oh what times, what customs’. Or roughly ‘What are things coming to?’ Maybe there is an ironic mole in Cheltenham.
Next month is the 69th anniversary of D-day, but several days in May see the anniversary of one of the odder coincidences of World War Two. In the Daily Telegraph crosswords during the run-up to D-day on June 6th 1944, there appeared a string of clue answers that rang alarm bells with MI5. UTAH popped up, following references in previous months to JUNO, GOLD and SWORD, and then on May 22nd came OMAHA. The next few days saw OVERLORD, MULBERRY and, finally, NEPTUNE. Thus were revealed the code-names of all five of the Normandy beaches where assault forces were to land, together with the code-name for the entire invasion, the naval assault itself and the system of floating harbours.
Sheer coincidence - or the work of traitors or spies? MI5 was quick to question the crossword compilers, one of whom was a headmaster, Leonard Dawe. He was cleared but the puzzle remained. Where had the words come from? Why in that combination?
It took more than twenty years for the likely solution to emerge. Dawe’s school in Surrey was close to where troops were quartered in preparation for the invasion. He sometimes gave empty crossword grids to his sixth-formers to fill in as a mental exercise, after which he would create clues for the words they’d supplied. And, in those heady pre-invasion days, a few of those same boys enjoyed the thrill of hanging around the army camp. One even recalled being allowed to drive a tank. They also picked up the chatter - and a few code-names - from soldiers who knew the names without knowing the locations.
Crosswords were a relatively new and popular diversion in the 1940s so MI5 was right to be suspicious. Passing on coded messages in newspapers was a favourite device of crime and thriller fiction from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie. Crossword messages were used in the recent US-conspiracy series Rubicon, sadly cancelled after only one season. Meanwhile, aficionados of the crossword will note that the D-day clues are of the straight, non-cryptic variety (i.e. they simply define the word required in the solution - UTAH was ‘One of the USA’ - rather than providing additional word play such as an anagram).
A bunch of cheer-leaders for Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, recently took to task a larger bunch of academics who wrote a letter objecting to Gove’s attempts to move education forward into the 1950s. Under the aegis of the Idler Academy Bad Grammar awards, they (the smaller bunch) dissected the letter and concluded it was ‘simply illiterate’.
In particular, they didn’t like the sentence ‘Much of it demands too much too young.’ Their baffled comment runs: “Presumably they [the academics] mean something like ‘demands too much when children are too young to be ready for so much.’” I guess that they (the cheer-leaders) don’t mean ‘presumably’ any more than I mean ‘baffled’. The first sentence is clear enough. It’s rather clunking, perhaps, but has the advantage of being only eight words long as against the fourteen of the rephrased version, which is scarcely less clumsy.
Clarity is important but it’s not usually obscured by what is called bad English. In support of correct punctuation, a small stall of old chestnuts is regularly wheeled out. One appeared yesterday in the Observer. It’s ‘Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off.’ Nonsense, isn’t it, unless you believe in ghosts? To make ‘sense’ of the sentence you need to insert a break, ideally a semi-colon in the middle, and perhaps a comma too: ‘Charles the First walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off.’ Ah, now I understand. The problem is that this sentence actually sounds better, more interesting and twice as natural in its uncorrected state.
Similarly for other comic and contrived examples like ‘I enjoy cooking my family and running fast.’ Or Eats, Shoots and Leaves, come to that.
The death of Mrs Thatcher – difficult to think of her as Lady or Baroness, for various reasons – has brought back the supposed gains and the real pains of the 1980s, as well as reigniting arguments over what she leaves behind.
Linguistically, it’s a limited if potent legacy. There’s Thatcherism for the doctrine as well as Thatcherite for the supporters. Both these terms emerge in 1976-7, proof that she set her stamp on the Conservative Party well before she became Prime Minister in 1979. To give rise to a political -ism, and so early, is an indication of one kind of success. By contrast, Blairism always sounded a bit contrived while Bushism usually referred not to the policies but to the verbal blunders of George W Bush.
Then there’s TINA, an acronym for ‘There is no alternative’ used about her economic policies and sometimes applied as a nickname to her. She actually said ‘There is no real alternative’ but TINRA doesn’t work as well. Combining with TINA was her most famous (and scripted) remark about a U-turn: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’ A few in the audience at the 1984 party conference might have recognised the reference to a 1948 play by Christopher Fry (The Lady’s Not for Burning), although it apparently passed over the head of Mrs T herself.
There are words and phrases that obviously predate her, like ‘wets’ to disparage opponents or that sentry’s challenge: ‘Is he one of us?’ And then there’s the tone of current political discourse, with its shirkers and strivers and its aspiration nation, all of which are reminiscent of the Thatcher worldview.
A feature in Atlantic magazine is cock-a-hoop at the decline of ‘whom’. The only problem for the writer, Megan Garber, is that it’s dying too slowly. The gist of the article is not only that the who/whom distinction seems made for confusion but that ‘whom’ is a fiddly and pretentious term in itself.
Fair enough. In conversation ‘whom’ tends to stick out like a well-bred thumb. In writing, at least of the formal kind, the moment when the road forks and you have to decide whether to go for ‘who’ or ‘whom’ can cause unease almost equal to apostrophe anxiety. The mistake of putting it in where it’s not needed – usually along the lines of ‘…the person whom the police believe committed the offence…’ – is somehow worse than mistakenly leaving it out, as in ‘…the person who the police arrested yesterday.’ Maybe this is because the writer has tried to get it right in the first and failed, while the writer of second seems either ignorant or unbothered.
Yet there is a distinction worth preserving between who and whom, between subject and object. For Lenin, the key question was ‘Who whom?’ Who is the doer, who is being done? Who wins, who loses? Vladimir Ilyich may be discredited but his question stands.