Monday, November 16, 2009

The big ask: keeping up with how language insists on changing (dammit)

Are you managing to stay abreast with how our language keeps changing? If you’re not, I fully understand. It’s a big ask (as people quite apart from sportsmen and women are increasingly saying), and the use of the word 'ask' is just one way language is changing.
In fact, 'ask' is not another rather pointless neologism but has a distinct meaning. It carries elements of 'demand', 'challenge' and 'request', but is distinct from all three. It seems to have started life, for a change, in Britain rather than being an American import as is usually the case, and was first used specifially by sportsmen and women. I suspect 'Big' Ron Atkinson first came up with it, as he often came out with words or phrases which were adopted by others ('early doors' for a player who has to leave the field early, and another very good one which is on the tip of my tongue but which I can't for the life of me recall offhand.)
You never come across a simple 'ask'. It is always a 'big ask'. And although the word and concept started life in sports, you will increasingly come across it elsewhere, for example on Radio 4's Today programme, most probably used by a politician, a breed always very keen to demonstrate how on the ball they are and how modern and aware and how they deserve every penny of their ill-gotten 'expenses'.
When I was young, my family still sat down together to Sunday lunch (something which, I believe is happening less and less - it was more German middle-class than British, and it is not the only thing I miss from the German part of my upbringing) and almost every Sunday the following conversation took place:
Me to my father: ‘Can you pass the salt, please?’
My father: ‘Of course, I can.’ But he wouldn’t pass the salt.
The point was that I should have asked ‘would you please pass the salt’. Once I had done so, I would get the salt, but also the same lecture on speaking correct English. And I would respond by telling my father that language was always changing and that what was once ‘wrong’ might now well be ‘right’.
Generally, it was pointless to try to take on my father at that level, because he knew more than I did and in such a debate could run rings around his son. But I still insist that what I was saying is true: language and its use are always changing and what was yesterday correct might well today slightly affected and old-fashioned. Those such as my father who insist that one usage is ‘correct’ implicitly feel that there was one age whose use of language provided the yardstick for correct usage, a kind of golden age. If there was such a time, it follows that not only is all subsequent use of language which doesn’t match up to that yardstick ‘wrong’, but, nonsensically, all previous use in the centuries leading up to that golden age was also wrong.
As we get older and as younger folk adopt the use of language which, to our ears, sounds alien, inelegant and ‘wrong’, some of us, like my father, are apt to get crusty and make fools of themselves. But unfortunately - some might say unfairly - it is us who must ‘raise our game’ and get use to the changes or risk sounding like old farts. It's a big ‘ask’, I know, but we have no choice.
Usages I don’t like, but no longer claim are ‘wrong’ include how people these days will say something along the lines of ‘there’s cars in the street’, whereas, if there is more than one car, it should be ‘there are ...’. Similarly, and in imitation of the characters from Friends, ask someone under 40 how they are, they will probably respond with ‘good’. This baffles someone like me who will say, and all his life heard other people say, ‘well’ or ‘quite well’. These changes are distinct from contemporary and more ephemeral usages such as beginning a sentence with the word ‘basically’, as in, for example, ‘basically, we are not aware of how language has changed until others laugh at us’, where the ‘basically’ is basically utterly redundant. It does perform a function - it gives the speaker a spurious authority as though he or she knows more than others what they are talking about, that they ‘have an in’. But that will not last. Another fashionable word whose use is more fashionable than marking any real change in language is the use of ‘absolutely’: ‘Did you enjoy your night out?’ ‘Absolutely’. I don’t like it, but then increasingly I belong to a world which is of less consequence, so my likes and dislikes are more and more unimportant. If you, like me, don’t like these changes, all I can say is: ‘Get used to it.’
Incidentally, I was going to record how much I dislike some Americanisms which, so far, have not been adopted in Britain. ‘Awesome’ is one. But then it occurred to me that referring to something as ‘a big ask’ might mean nothing to Americans and that, furthermore, they might feel aggrieved over certain British uses which they feel debases the English language. So I shan't.

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  3. This is what I should have written…

    I was unaware that ‘awesome’ is unadopted in the UK. I’ve heard it frequently used as mock understatement for ‘Oh My God’ which is routinely ostentatious. ‘Whatever’ is wonderfully dismissive; ‘devastated’ is populist; ‘gutted’ is usually a mistake; ‘no-brainer’ remains ambiguous; ‘iconic’ is over-used and ‘to be honest,’ it’s the ‘silver surfers’ of my generation that invented mobile phones and the internet. At least you won’t have so sit on the ‘naughty step’ for your considered polemic! That would be just too ‘Enid Blyton’ and probably a false anachronism! ‘When all is said and done,’ only youngsters can actually use these kinds of words without irony - and people like me can’t find a less obscure word than ‘polemic’! [Syntax improved only!]

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