From Fossilised Fishhooks to Rickrolling: The Changing Face of Language -- Ruth Leigh
Words. Gosh I love them. I expect you do too. We writers relish finding new ones, playing with established ones and looking back at the way our predecessors used language. I was on the school run yesterday morning when the inspiration for this blog hit me, due to the following conversation:
Son: It was so lame in English the other day. Someone told the teacher his hero was Rick Astley. When she asked why, he said he would never give him up, let him down, tell him a lie or desert him. She wasn’t impressed.
Daughter: That’s funny.
Son: In lockdown, one of my Maths group nearly got chucked out of the class by the teacher.
Son: He Rickrolled her.
Me: Rickrolled? What on earth does that mean?
Daughter (with patient sigh): You know, like when someone sends a link and it looks normal but when you click on it, you get Rick Astley singing “Never Going to Give You Up.”
Me: Oh. I didn’t know that was a thing. Hmm. Might make a good blog. You don’t mind if I use you two as inspiration do you?
Them: Do we have a choice?
So here I am, pondering the evolving nature of language. My children have taught me any number of modern phrases. “Peng” (a very attractive person), “hench” (strong or muscular), “peak” (bad or annoying), “chatting waz” (talking absolute nonsense) and “salty” (getting upset over something insignificant). Rest assured that I don’t use these words in everyday conversation. Nothing more embarrassing than a middle-aged person attempting to be cool and get down with da kidz.
When I was a child, I read everything I could lay my hands on. I don’t quite know why, but I owned several “Jennings” books by Anthony Buckeridge. I remember enjoying the stories of a boy who goes to prep school aged ten and has a variety of adventures, although his life in the 1950s couldn’t have been further away from mine in the 1970s.
I hadn’t thought of Jennings for years. Two years ago, I moved my elderly parents up to Suffolk and they have developed a voracious appetite for reading. Shut up at home, they plough through books as locusts race through a field of wheat. I’ve lent them mountains of my own books and bought whole series from fellow authors, but their need for fresh material never abates. My father went to boarding school and still occasionally lapses into schoolboy vernacular. I purchased the first four Jennings book in an anthology and handed them over. First, though, I read them myself.
I’d forgotten how good they are. Fresh, funny, believable and well-written. The thing that took a bit of getting used to was the language. Buckeridge was writing seventy years ago, when life was very different. The boys have a number of exclamations to reflect concern or surprise, coined by the author himself.
“Petrified paint pots!”
If someone is in a temper or a rage, they are described as being in a “bate”. A difficult situation is a “gruesome hoo-hah”. A silly person is an “addle-pated clodhopper” while making a mistake is “bishing something up.”
A frequent recurring character in the books is the school’s most eminent Old Boy, Lieut-General Sir Melville Merridew, DSO, MC. Attending the school in the last decade of the nineteenth century, he appears to be a complete anachronism to the ten- and eleven-year-old boys who encounter him. However, in spite of his use of outdated language, it turns out that he was just as cheeky and prone to scrapes when he was a boy.
This made me think about the bridges between centuries and the part language has to play. We know how an educated middle-class English woman spoke because of the novels of Jane Austen. The many voices which come out of the literature of the nineteenth century give us an insight into street slang, courtly language and the way everyday people addressed each other. The twentieth century with its novels by such diverse characters as Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth von Arnim, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing and Maya Angelou gives such a broad sweep of language, syntax and life experience.
One day, the way I speak and write now may be quietly ridiculed by my grandchildren. Each generation comes up with its own slang and each generation is dated by it.
When striving to be hench and Rickrolling your teacher are just memories, language will still be evolving and our writing with it. No-one gets in a bate or a bish anymore, just as no-one claims to be excessively diverted. Language is in a state of constant evolution, and who better to enjoy it than writers? What do you think?
Images by Pixabay
Ruth is a novelist and freelance writer. She is married with three children, one husband, two budgies, two quail, eight chickens and a kitten. Her first novel, “The Diary of Isabella M Smugge”, came out in February this year and she is writing the sequel, “The Trials of Isabella M Smugge.” She writes for a number of small businesses and charities and blogs at ruthleighwrites.co.uk. She has abnormally narrow sinuses and a morbid fear of raw tomatoes, but has decided not to let this get in the way of a meaningful life. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at ruthleighwrites.