Ciprian-necula Pure Opinion Ciprian-necula Pure Opinion: An Ageing Killjoy?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

An Ageing Killjoy?

An Ageing Killjoy?..

Just one of the things the Frenchman in me has never been able to understand about the English is how such a pragmatic, no-nonsense people, masters of understatement, and so mistrustful of words beyond two syllables in length could have so systematically incorporated into their daily vocabulary such a vast array of hyperbolic adjectives (frequently reinforced by ' absolutely' or 'utterly') to qualify what barely emerges from the mundane.

Last week, for example, I had lunch with a friend in an English pub. The waitress, a breezy, not unattractive young lady brought us the menu, came back five minutes later, took down our order, and then departed after gratifying us with a sweet smile and a mystifying 'Wonderful!' If, by this, she wished to compliment us on our choice of fare, I have yet to understand what she could have found so extraordinarily remarkable about steak and kidney pie, peas and chips.

And only last week I was having a friendly chat with my next-door neighbour who'd recently taken the wife and kids on a Sunday outing to Blackpool, of all places. As we'd had rain at home for most of that day, I asked him if they'd had a spot there, too.

'Not at all,' he replied, 'the weather was absolutely superb, and the view from the Tower was simply awesome.'

Now, don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against Blackpool, really. What with that huge amusement park and all those hotdog stands, it's fantas... sorry, it's all right for the kids. But I wouldn't be seen dead there myself. And having been up the real thing in Paris, I've no desire to contemplate the sights from the top of its Tower. What's more, however far you stretch your imagination, the sky couldn't have been as cloud-free as he was trying to make out. After all, the north-west coast of England is not the Côte d'Azur. But, without really knowing why, what I took most exception to was not so much his choice of 'absolutely superb' to qualify what could only have been a fitful sunny presence, but his use of 'simply awesome' to describe the view from Blackpool Tower. Perhaps it was just the straw that broke the camel's back.

Mind you, I am aware that a living language is in constant evolution, and I did ask myself whether the meaning of 'awesome' had weakened over the last couple of decades. So, before making any final judgement, I decided to look it up in my latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. And here, to my great satisfaction, what I more than suspected was officially confirmed: that applying a word normally associated with the sublime or grandiose to a stretch of dirty-looking sand and greenish-coloured sea was, in any man's language, pushing things a bit too far.

You know, I'm inclined to think that this propensity to verbal excess is yet another blight which has been blown in from the States, and which is inexorably turning what we are now obliged to call 'British English' into little more than an American dialect. But I'd be the first to admit we can't blame the Yanks for everything. And I can't help thinking that those at the B.B.C can be faulted, too. Why, only the other evening I was watching a passably interesting documentary on some of the more notable beauty spots in and around the British Isles. After three or four minutes, however, I began to be so uncomfortably aware of the stubborn use of 'fantastic' that I resolved to conduct a personal count on the frequency with which it was being pronounced. Before you could say Jack Robinson, between the commentator and the three or four people he interviewed, I'd already reached 20. Hasn't all this got to such a point that if you don't effuse about all or nothing you can even find yourself giving offence?

In contrast to this unbridled Anglo-Saxon enthusiasm for all things great and small, the Gallics seem to paint a far truer picture of how things really are. During my bachelor years when I lived at home, I once invited a French friend to come and stay with us for a few days. Now since Jean-Paul was an English teacher in France his English was above all reproach. I distinctly remember the first family meal we ate together. It was a Sunday lunch and, in order to give him a taste of traditional English fare, Mum had prepared a succulent joint of beef accompanied by three or four vegetables, Yorkshire Pudding and gravy. The speed with which Jean-Paul transferred the generous contents of plate to stomach seemed to indicate that Mum's culinary efforts had not been in vain, and - certainly fishing for compliments - she enquired rather insistently whether he'd enjoyed the meal.

'Yes, it was fine,' he replied.

The fleeting look of disappointment which crossed Mum's face was enough to convince Jean-Paul that somehow he'd not quite said the right thing. But he didn't for the life of him know why. So afterwards, when we were alone together, he asked me whether it wouldn't have been more judicious to use that other four letter word so ubiquitously applied by the English to anything vaguely pleasant. I replied that it would perhaps have been better to use the word 'nice', but not so much because of its meaning, which is more or less the same as 'fine'. For such are the intricate mysteries of the English language that the main advantage of 'nice' is that it can be preceded by 'very'. 'Bien,' retorted Jean-Paul, 'ça y est, je comprends!' I should have said 'It was very nice!' Even though this would have been more acceptable, I retorted, if he had really wanted to play it safe a duo or even a trio of 'verys' would have gone down a treat - though four was going a bit too far. But, I added, if he wanted to avoid this kind of unimaginative repetition, the choice was certainly not lacking, and the use of a single word like 'marvellous', 'fabulous', 'amazing' or 'stunning' would have more than done the trick.

Mind you, my disapproval does admit one exception: I've always sympathized with those who spend their professional lives pretending to be other people - usually larger than life - and I can understand their off-stage inclination to embellish humdrum reality with one or two enthusiastically-chosen words. But now, every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to be at it. I mean, I've no recollections of such generalized verbal extravagance in my, admittedly, dim and distant youth. Or am I just an ageing, backward-looking killjoy who's lost all zest for life?

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