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In So Many Words...

'Would you care for a bag?'

My favourite local bookshop offers copies of last year's hit, Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops (by Jen Campbell) on sale by the till. Waiting, last weekend, bored, while the patient bookseller dealt with the Customer From Hell, I was hearing a brief chapter of my own.

'Do you have the new Jeanette Winterson? I saw it near the front last week, only I don't see it there now...?' was her querulous umpteenth question. Suppressing a sigh with a strained smile, he offered to go and look. 'Oh...' she said... 'Maybe don't. The last thing you went looking for, you took ages, and I'm meeting friends for coffee, you know, five minutes ago...'

He processed her transactions. 'Would you care for a bag?' he asked at the end. 'Um... yeah, like, obviously I want a bag?' she replied in a sarcastic tone, which was no great match for the politeness of the bookseller's slightly archaic phraseology.

'Would I care for a bag?' In a Northern Ireland where the Legislative Assembly has just voted through plastic bag charges for introduction in April, whether one might care for a bag, rather than simply demand one, seems a legitimate request. Yes. I'll care for it. I'll keep it folded in the boot of my car, or in a corner of my handbag, for another shopping eventuality. I'll look after it; I won't just dispose of it when I get my purchase home today. And bookshop bags particularly... bearing quotations, as they do, advertising the joys of reading more than they do the shop itself. If the bags we reuse will signal who we are (do we shop in cheery cheesy co-ordinated Next, sensible M&S, chavtastic DV8 or hipster Topshop?), at least bookshop bags extol reading itself as well as the place for buying books. Clothes shop bags just advertise the brand - they say nothing of the joys of being clothed...

In a local department store this morning, lingering amid the lingerie were three fifty-to-sixty-something women. Sisters, perhaps. One was searching the items and complaining loudly: 'You can never find anything smaller than a 12 in this damned place. I need some size 10 underwear. I mean I need it badly. But look - here we are again, one or two size 12s and a million size 18s! And not one bloody 10!' One companion sympathised, the other laughing, said: 'Here - as a protest, you should just say 'to hell!' and go commando...'

I suppressed my laughter at the incongruity, until I was out of sight. Three middle-aged, sensible-seeming women, shopping, discussing the abandonment of their underwear and decorum? We judge an era or an age-group much too easily, it seems, by words and labels and appearances. Recently, a list of new additions to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2012 was published. The new words slip from the characters of tweets and texts and social networking. Using them, you have to take a deep breath and pretend that you're still young. Look. I've tried.

'I'm like, a total screenager, using textspeak to unfriend the Twitterati who are like, not totes droolworthy and stuff. I'm like, whatevs, they're totally just noobs and muggles. Like OMG Grrrl, with your muffin-top and your upcycled jeggings, you're Illiterati not Illuminati and the fashion po-po should totes confiscate your bling. You're not fit for bromance or like sexting, 'cos you're in La-La-Land if you think you're anything more than Frankenfood. D'Oh. Just 'cos you're a Whovian doesn't make you totes crunk. Chillax. Haters gonna hate. This truthiness is so part of my infomania, I'm like a Purple State over guyliner but I'm totes saying no to the mankini. Though I'm so like woot to being a locavore, and if you want to be a mini-me not, like, an omnishambles you'll be like, the same. Like obvs...'

I know. I cringed as I wrote all that, forcing myself into the mindset of the kind of seventeen-year-old who probably looks at me and thinks 'totes tragic'. Words, it seems, are not a 'one size fits all' means of communicating who we are. What fits me won't work for you, and what works for them sounds odd enough coming from me to make me cringe to the point of shuddering as I type or say it. What's the alternative? Protest like the disgruntled woman who can't find underwear in her size? Stage a military-worded protest, sans culottes? Fall silent?

No. Language is growing, changing, and alive. Silence because its novelties do not suit us would be like going unclothed and then complaining of the cold. Our language allows a scope from archaism to novelty, from ephemeral message to lasting truth. It's reusable - like a bag. There's only one response.

Would I care for a word?

Like: totes...

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