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Rise of the Phrase 'Can I Get?'

07/02/2014 13:52 GMT | Updated 08/04/2014 10:59 BST

In London something has happened to the English language, it is being dismantled and reassembled according to an, as yet unidentified, meme - a virus has spread though our tongue, a malformed mutant of a phrase that can be heard across the capital. Of course, words are frequently deformed to suit the times. We are used to hearing the word literally applied to the metaphorical. Random is oft used inaccurately, particularly by dullards who wish to portray themselves as quirky ('I'm pretty random' - a euphemistic way of saying 'I engage in a variety of activities' - just like everyone else).

It is now a long time since we embraced the Australian idiom no worries - deploying it in a number of ways (generally 'you're welcome' or 'I forgive your error'). Office workers have been going forward, reaching out and touching base for eons. More recently we have started taking it offline, and done so with aplomb. I am however talking about something far more insidious. An erosion of our language that represents not only a breakdown of clarity, but a breakdown in manners. I am of course talking about the pseudo-sinister 'can I get?'

At one time, so our elders would have us believe, we would enter a shop and ask if we 'may' have such-and-such? From there we slipped to 'can I have?' - and, despite the pedant's nonsensical retort of 'yes, you can', we set this as our default. Then, a couple of years ago, we dropped a gear into the mechanical and somewhat authoritative can I get?

One is particularly likely to hear this in South West London - linger by the pretzel shop in Clapham Junction station, with its Antipodean '90s-indie-movie staff, and you are bound to be assailed by this gabbled command. Can I get has a haughtiness that is somehow both informal and prescriptive. Can I get leaves no room for niceties, we intuitively know that 'please' sits awkwardly in this sentence, so it is invariably left out.

Like twenty-somethings saying 'hashtag' to lend immediacy, can I get has an urgency not witnessed since Dickensian London, a time when merchants cow-towed to whoever held the Queen's sovereign. And in keeping with this notion of distinction, can I get seems to be an exclusively middle-class colloquialism. Young professionals from Balham to Brockley drop this word-bomb all over the bars and organic cafés of the capital. An expression that is almost New York in its briskness.

I am not decrying its use, of course, words and phrases are cyclical. Random seems to be slowly reverting to its original usage (although it can still be heard when something slightly unusual occurs - by way of expressing astonishment, someone will needlessly remark 'that's a bit random'). Similarly, we no longer describe a disappointing event as pants, or express a desire to bonk someone. Words come and go, and yet the human need to innovate goes on, as a fine wordsmith once said 'everything changes, but you'.

I have recently discussed can I get with a number of friends and colleagues. So far, I have been met with everything from denial to derision. Perhaps, I was losing it - maybe this phrase, already part of the common lexicon, was no longer noteworthy. And yet, I continued my petty research. I decided to ask my date what she thought:

Milly and I were in a Brockley coffee shop when I shared my observation. We always spoke with vigour and despite her femininity our meetings had a Frost/Nixon style frisson. Old fashioned literate types would call her bookish. I would call her a nerd. A hot nerd.

"Why do you pick me up on everything I say?" She said.

"I don't."

"You do. I just said can I get when I ordered a drink, and you jumped all over it - one of my middle-class ways, you said. I mean honestly, what's wrong with the way I speak? You told me last week it was an advantage. What about that kid on the bus who was arguing with the driver. He said 'oh, my days' - you didn't comment on that. What does that even mean? My days - which days is he referring to exactly?"

"Well, bad ones, presumably."

"Oh, don't you know? I thought you were street. Is that why you don't have a go at the working class, you think they're your people?"

My neck burned.

Milly said, "you're about as working class as Jamie Oliver."

"Come on," I put my cup down, "that's a bit below the belt. I grew up in South..."

"London. I know, you keep saying. But look at you now, suit, shoes, side-parting."

I looked down. "Why are you having a go at the shoes? They're just normal shoes, it's not like I'm wearing ironic brogues. Anyway, I still live in the same area, more or less."

"Yes, but you're a corporate man now, you couldn't be further away from where you were."

I looked at my watch without registering the time.

"And thank god for that," I said.

Milly started tapping away at her phone. The coffee shop was filling with buggies. Middle-aged couples with small children shuffled in and out. Someone bumped my chair but said nothing. I looked at Milly, in reality she was exactly what I needed.

"Hold on," she said, squinting into the screen, "I want to show you something."

I took a sip of coffee, "its ok, you already have."