"OMG This is Literally Amazeballs.": The Use and Abuse of English 2012

03/06/2012 15:21 | Updated 02 August 2012

This year all of London is a stage: from the pomp and pageantry of the Jubilee barge sailing regally down the Thames, to the heart pounding action of the Olympic Games. The biggest Shakespeare festival the world has seen is also being staged. The playwright is, of course, famous for inventing over 1,000 everyday words English speakers now casually spurt out without even pausing to think about: amazement; champion; critic; gossip; label; luggage; secure and varied, to name but a few.

Yet how would the Bard fair with 'English 2012'? While, the recent example of Michael Gove being examined at the Leveson Inquiry was an erudite and eloquent performance of clarity, carefully honed diction and a smattering of throw away Latin lines to add intellectual gravitas, this is very much the exception. More often than not, we hack away at language; taking bits off adding them onto others and confusing them all in the process. ('OMG this is literally amazeballs', to take one example) As a Scot born into a barren wilderness and raised by wolves, I've been desperately trying to decipher the plummy polish of the west-London accent. I've been paying a lot more attention than usual to language and how we communicate in the process. London, more than anywhere else, has a medley of accents, often brewed up amidst loud music and alcohol. Language is often reduced to primitive codes of hand gestures and semi-audible mush; it's organic, haphazard and assimilates any and all new influences.

At the other end of the spectrum is '2012 speak'. This is a semi-official political-media-corporate language which has concocted terms like 'ideate', 'deplaning' and 'becaonicity'. When asked to describe a particularly bad week this year, one Downing Street source gave a masterclass in the 2012 equivalent of 'newspeak' when commenting on the government's current situation: 'I think the technical term is omnishambles...otherwise known as a clusterf**k.'

Language is infinitely mutable, of course. Life, Shakespeare or not, quickly begins to imitate art. London 2012 has literally (correct usage) become a stage; words play their part too, seemingly being hastily erected to describe something new (or, more likely, dress up something old an boring). Thus, we are being told by Olympic coordinators to 're-mode' our travel habits, which to all intents and purposes means 'walk'. Indeed the official language has strayed wonderfully close to phrases used in the BBC satires 'The Thick of It' and 'Twenty Twelve'. Are phrases like 'sustainable shared believability' or 'multiculturality' real or satirical? What about 'SoLoMo' (Social Local Mobile)? And to confound, or join in, the fun, Sebastian Coe has even made a brief cameo in 'Twenty Twelve'.

All this seems relatively harmless. But there's a more serious point - especially in an Age of Digital when communications and unconfirmed rumours can travel at frightening speed. Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian sage, noted of his own age that our means of production - the tools we use - often affect how we communicate. As a result, factory studded Victorian Britain produced a lot of mechanistic language: clear, rational and logical. Today we should be conscious of digital or management speak clouding clarity in our communications. A recent report by MPs has advised the use of 'weight neutral language' by the medical profession. Terms like 'fat' and 'obese', it will come as no surprise, have been gradually phased out to be replaced with 'obese' or 'overweight'. But now it is being recommended that even the neutral term 'overweight' is excised. All this is surely to surrender clarity to an opaque inoffensive and meaningless mush. Let's try and avoid dressing up dull facts to make them interesting; inventing new ones which have not been clearly defined or using clever wording for fear of offending someone.