‘Mind Your Language’ was a UK sitcom in the seventies. I loved it. The situation was a language school and the comedy stemmed from the way in which the foreign students mispronounced, misunderstood and misconstrued common words and phrases in their endeavour to speak English. It was undoubtedly racist (compulsory in 70s UK) and probably not even funny (optional but preferred) but it did have an attractive woman in the cast (a staple though not compulsory and never described like that). Yes it was overly clichéd and yes, it was hopelessly stereotyped, but essentially it was gentle and (casual racism/sexism apart) inoffensive (to me).
We don’t speak like that to one another anymore.
In many ways that is a very good thing but we have to consider that we may have lost something along the way. Public discourse today is far more abrasive, confrontational and insensitive. If you demonstrate any weakness then you are more likely to be mocked for it than supported through it. The singer and songwriter from the band The Smiths, one Stephen Patrick Morrissey, summed this up very succinctly in the song ‘I Know it’s Over’, which appeared on their seminal album ‘The Queen is Dead’, with these lines:
It’s so easy to laugh It’s so easy to hate It takes strength to be gentle and kind
(In the reprise of these lines he replaces ‘strength’ with ‘guts’ which he delivers in a gloriously regional pronunciation)
Morrissey is a public figure who has always divided opinion. His legion of acolytes adore him and hang on his every utterance whilst his detractors – an ever increasing number that now includes many former fans – are as vehement in their vilification. They point out that what were once quirky lyrical eccentricities that endeared him to them have now lost their charm, drowned out by wave after wave of nastiness, nationalism and ill-judged observations on the country in which he once lived.
This has a whiff of irony associated with it. The Smiths and Morrissey in particular have, through their songs, mythologised a view of the past that oozes with nostalgic references to a bygone time that is both recognisable and reminiscent. This went beyond the songs themselves and was extended to the use of iconic film and television stars from the 50s and 60s who embodied and defined something of those decades on the covers of their singles and albums. They cemented this when they sang with Sandy Shaw, a true and bona fide musical legend of the 60s. The music was contemporary and cutting edge, the styling – quiffs, hush puppies and Rickenbacker guitars – iconic, but it is arguably the lyrics to the songs that confer the band with such a legendary status and has led to comparisons with The Kinks or even, by some, The Beatles.
What is in the words that sets Smiths’s songs apart from almost anything written before or since? I think it is a combination of clever phrasing and softer language. The subjects of the songs are not necessarily unique but the way they are tackled is. Let’s look a couple of examples that will hopefully show you what I mean. One of my favourites is ‘What Difference Does it Make?’. This is essentially a love song. The protagonist is struggling to rekindle a dying romance, at one point he laments:
And yet you start to recoil, Heavy words are so lightly thrown, But I’m still fond of you
There is so much to enjoy in these lines – heavy words are lightly thrown – but it is in the use of the word ‘fond’ we witness the brilliance of Morrissey’s early writing for The Smiths. I cannot think of any writer that would have gone for that word. Love songs are about that, ‘love’, he should by rights have put ‘But I’m still in love with you’ or, more simply, ‘But I still love you’. He didn’t take the obvious route and the line is much more tender and considered.
Or take the song that is generally considered to be the fans favourite, ‘There is a Light and it Never Goes Out’. Again, a love song only this time the singer is joyously celebrating their love. The chorus goes:
And if a double decker bus Crashes into us To die by your side Is such a heavenly way to die. And if a ten-ton truck Kills the both of us To die by your side Well the pleasure and privilege is mine
Singing about love and death is not unusual and dying for one’s love is heroic, laying down ones life the ultimate sacrifice. Again though Morrissey does not take the obvious path with this. A high speed car crash does have some mystique about it but a collision with a bus or a lorry is an altogether more mundane method of meeting your maker. Morrissey transforms this tragicomic scene into a triumphant act of love.
Northern nostalgia and whimsical waxing are both lovely but language evolves. We, in the UK, now have adopted so many ‘Americanisms’ that they have just become part of the way we speak. This used to irk me no end especially when my children were growing up. They would watch whatever the latest transatlantic hit series had been imported and drop words and references into conversations around the house. Their friends wouldn’t ‘stay the night’ as we had done, they would sleepover. We would ‘rent’ a movie rather than hiring a film, perhaps, or instead of can they ‘have’ something it would be a question of whether they could ‘get’ it. No one is ‘well’ anymore when you ask how they are, everyone is now ‘good’, a judgement I have always believed to be unattributable to oneself. Despite appearances to the contrary, I am not anti-American per se, just guarded over its cultural influence and protective of our language because, well, it is important. Important but not set in stone and new words are created all the time and they do enter the language and become officially recognised as they are added to dictionaries. This is an ongoing process and literally hundreds of words move from common parlance into official vocabulary. It might be just me but, of the ones I hear about, there seems to be many more new words invented and defined that are intended to put people down rather than lift them up. We seem more adept at working in new ways to insult one another than we are at introducing affirmations.
Thus, in the aftermath of the UK referendum on membership of the EU, those who voted to remain and were unhappy with the result were coined ‘remoaners’, whereas the leave voters that pointed this out were ‘gammons’. And when we are not inventing insults we are just doubling down on existing ones and using them as divisively as we can. Those that didn’t vote for ‘winner’ Donald Trump in 2016 were just plain old ‘losers’. These binary divisions leave little or no space for graciousness or kindness in victory nor acceptance and humility in defeat.
Just vitriol all round.
Vitriol is defined by the words we choose to use. We don’t have to indulge and I would contend that we would all feel a lot better if we didn’t.
We don’t have to start there though and we might find we can build the ‘strength to be gentle and kind’ by paying a little attention to the words we use in more general conversation.
If we can steer ourselves away from the extreme language of stereotype, hyperbole and cliché and be more considered and considerate in how we describe ourselves and each other then we will go a long way to achieving this.