Monday, 24 November 2014

This is not a revolutionary post by Jo Carroll

I know I'm a pedant. So sometimes I need to creep into a corner and give myself a talking to. Language moves on. 'Gotten' will become an acceptable import from America whether I like it or not.

But there is one word that makes my hackles rise whenever it is used inappropriately (which is most of the time.)

Revolutionary.

A revolutionary (noun) is a man or woman whose actions or beliefs promote comprehensive change in systems or in thinking: Che Guevara was a revolutionary. So was Darwin.

Revolutionary (adjective) describes the beliefs, ideas, or theories that underpin that change. So Darwin's discovery of evolution upended all previous assumptions about creation and the impact of his thinking rumbles on today.

But the word has been adopted by the advertising industry and become meaningless. So here, for any ad-men or ad-women who might drop by this blog, is why I will never buy anything that you describe as 'revolutionary:'

Shoes cannot be revolutionary unless they allow the wearer to do something that has never been done before when wearing shoes, such as walking on the ceiling.

Washing machines can never be revolutionary unless they learn to do something other than wash clothes. In which case they are no longer washing machines.

A toothbrush can never be revolutionary. Even if it is dressed up to look like a rocket it is still a toothbrush.

Face cream cannot be revolutionary. You might claim that it hides all my wrinkles. But so what? Even if you gave me baby skin - it would still be skin.

Furniture cannot be revolutionary. A chair is a chair, even if - like Dali's - it is shaped like lips.

And writing? Can writing be 'revolutionary?' Ah, here I am on thinner ice. Darwin, you remind me. Karl Marx. Sigmund Freud. I am sure you can add more examples of great thinkers who have made unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable contributions to literature. But they are precious, and rare. It is a label that needs applying thoughtfully - an accolade for work that has made an irrevocable contribution in the world of ideas.

My travel writing is not revolutionary, though it might make you think. (You can find links on my website here.)

And this post is not revolutionary. But wouldn't it be wonderful if it were, and the word were reclaimed and returned to its rightful place in the dictionary.

7 comments:

Lydia Bennet said...

Three cheers for language and keeping an eye on its constant changes! however I feel I must point out that 'gotten' is an old English form, used in England for centuries, which passed out of use here after the US had been colonised, which is why they still have it and we don't! so if it catches on here (and it still survives in 'ill-gotten gains') it will be coming home!

Jan Needle said...

re gotten. it's still used in parts of lancashire, sometimes sounding more like geeten or getten. and my mother's pet hate - fall - was what english people used to call autumn.

Lesley Cookman said...

There is even an ad currently running about "revolutionary slippers." (And as with "gotten" so with "fall". It annoys me, though.)

Reb MacRath said...

Well-done. But let me add this quote regarding the origin of 'gotten':

Just seeing the word is enough to set the hair of some British English speakers on end. Yet, despite the many claims that it is an Americanism, it is most definitely of British origin and the Oxford English Dictionary traces its first use to the 4th century.

Since then, it has been used by many notable British English writers, including Shakespeare, Bacon and Pope and it was one of a number of words that were transported across the Atlantic with the settlers. But then it slipped out of use in British English, along with such words as fall for "autumn" (British English having opted to adopt the French word) and guess in the sense of "think".

This has led to the less-informed criticising it as a "heinous Americanism", despite its British origin - yet I'm sure such people quite happily use words and phrases like belittle, cold snap, bark up the wrong tree and lengthy, despite these being true Americanisms.

JO said...

Seems I'll have to live with 'gotten' - and given it's ancient heritage I'll try to do with with good grace.

Or run off in those revolutionary slippers ... (WTF?)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

There's an excellent book by Bill Bryson about the history of English English and US English and all the words and forms that changed here but not there. Fascinating stuff.

Lee said...

Gotten: I don't even seen the need for historical precedent, or for any defensiveness whatsoever. We're writers, people: let's try to appreciate variety, richness,borrowings from foreign languages, our own coinages. If you're annoyed by how others speak, there are some good tranquillisers available from the NHS, I believe.