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. 

Daughter: Why? 

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? 

Me: No. 

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. 

“Fossilised fishhooks!” 

“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 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.


Peter Leyland said…
I know those Jennings books well Ruth and yes the language was fantastic just as was Frank Richards' Billy Bunter series. My real favourites, however, are the stories of Nigel Molesworth by Willans and Searle from Down with Skool to Back in the Jug Agane.

All of these use language in a way that appeals to children and it lasts well into adulthood. Your post reminded me that this week my line manager (30s) said to me about some work i had done, It's not shabby, meaning, It's good, and I recalled Eden on this blog as calling a piece I had written, Not too shabby.

Ah language, what fun. Your piece is, Not too shabby either!
Ruth Leigh said…
I've never read Nigel Molesworth, to my shame! I must try them. Not too shabby! Where did that come from, I wonder? Thank you for your kind words.
Jan Needle said…
Jolly spiffing that, thanks Ruth. But what I've always found more fascinating is the way spoken accents have changed. Listen to a recording of ordinary people speaking ordinary language from even not so many years ago and the difference is astonishing. Ditto in films. They could almost be from another planet. And yet, does the same apply to so-called demotic speech? Nelson, we are led to believe, had a strong Norfolk accent, while his friend and colleague Collingwood had a Geordie accent you could walk a dog on. Or so they say, although the evidence almost certainly wouldn't stand up in a court of law.
Also, we're told that Robert Peel spoke broad-ish Lancashire. And there are recordings. But our dear queen, whom we can still listen to, has an accent so weird and archaic that she too could be from outer space. Another oddity, perhaps, is that I used to read Jennings et al voraciously, despite being a working-class oik, and also my most beloved Swallows and Amazons. it never even occurred to me that the Walkers were posh beyond belief, or that Nancy and Peggy possibly had a marked Lakeland twang. To me, in my head, they all sounded like me. Weird, innit?
Ruth Leigh said…
Wizard! That's very true. Somewhere there is a recording of Tennyson reading one of his poems in his own accent, which is very strong. War films from the 1930s and 1940s have such different accents - the Queen still speaks like that, as so many aristocratic people. Jennings was miles away from my experience and yet I loved it. Maybe it was all that mud and adventuring.
The books you read as a child also date you. I was stunned recently when a horsey 20+ I know had not heard of Thelwell... I thought EVERY horsey person was aware of his cartoons (fat ponies and country jokes), but seems he's fallen completely off the radar now. I can remember having books of them as a child, and they still make me laugh.
Reb MacRath said…
Fascinating post. I checked online for anything on the Tennyson reading and came up with his reading of the Light Brigade on YouTube:

It's barely intelligible and the performance is almost comical. But it led me to wonder if our own day's reading styles will in turn seem quaint a decade or two down the pike.
I loved the Jennings books! We learned that every single person in England would say, "Ew, it's raining cats and dogs," whenever it rained. We couldn't wait for the first day of bad weather. Imagine our disappointment...
Ruth Leigh said…
They do, don't they, Katherine? I loved Thelwell - he was hilarious. One cartoon which sticks in my mind is the vicar putting up a poster saying something like "Red Arrows display - if wet, in vicarage" and the wife standing behind him looking horrified.
Ruth Leigh said…
Now I think about it, Reb, I was at a friend's house and he played a record of Tennyson reading the poem. It was very hard to understand. If you watch Steptoe and Son, they speak in a London accent which has now completely disappeared. So interesting
Ruth Leigh said…
Ha ha! Our language is rich in misleading sayings. Spaniards say "it's raining clay pots" as the equivalent and while we say "she could talk the hind leg off the donkey", they say "she talks through her elbows."
Wendy H. Jones said…
I love this, as always. A trip down memory lane with regards to words has got me thinking. I'm going to dredge up some from my childhood.
Ruth Leigh said…
Thanks Wendy!
Great piece - and also rather than simply 'loving' words, you explain what that means to you - the variety, the amusement, and, importantly, the way they move around, first strutting their stuff, then going right out of fashion!

And accents - those are wonderful things as well. Looking back, although I was raised in 'RP', I realise my grandparents must've had a variety of these - Bristol, Suffolk, and central London, plus a Gt Grandma from Greece whose children (Grandpa and my Great Aunt) spoke Greek under-5 (bi-lingual, though they forgot it as adults) WHat a liveliness of speech - today we're all influenced by radio/TV/movies, and speak a real mix - although beyong the south it does get more interesting - my Durham cousins are almost intelligible to me, and I to them - almost! Thanks for the fun of speech, Ruth!
PS Also,I loved Jennings - read in the early 1960s.
Ruth Leigh said…
For such a small country, we have an incredible range of accents and dialects. I find it all completely fascinating. Your family history sounds a very rich mix!

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