Since I was a small child, the thing that I’ve been most interested in is the English language. I read avidly from infancy, I wrote obsessively as soon as I could pick up a pen and anyone who, in my opinion, was a master of my native tongue I would idolise. I don’t just mean authors either, I mean people like Barry Davies, who could describe a football match as if he was a poet giving a guided tour of the Louvre; Ian Hislop, who could craft his words into a rapier with which to skewer the egos of ludicrous Conservative politicians; and my all time absolute hero Peter Cook, who’s use of wordplay in his twelve part “Life In Pieces” sketch with Ludovic Kennedy is the most agile and quick-witted piece of comedic writing that we will ever see.
I personally have been a sports journalist, a lyricist, a poet, a blogger and an author. I have had work published in every field I’ve just mentioned. I have written intensely personal things to individual people that have made them happy and made them cry. Words, when used properly, can stir these emotions in people. I remember an occasion when I was about fifteen when my maths teacher Mrs Wattam had kept me behind after class because she’d been perturbed by my loud-mouthed teenage remark that I had no interest in figures. She sat me down and spoke to me like an adult and then showed me an unbelievably complicated piece of algebra which she wrote down and explained to me. Then she said “Don’t you think that’s great how it all fits together and works out so perfectly?” and I replied, with honesty, “No, I don’t find it interesting.” You see, with figures, you have ten digits that have limited values and can only be endlessly repeated in various combinations. With words, the possibilities are endless. With figures, the life you can aspire to is accountant, maths teacher, general nerd. With words, you can be a War Correspondent, Screen Writer, Music Journalist… Words are beautiful, romantic and emotional.
And somehow, recently, someone has got hold of words and turned them into something to be used to fuck us over.
My fellow S.O.T.S. blogger, Paul Featherstone, used a fantastic word in a recent e-mail to me: “hoodwinked.” Our mother tongue is being bastardised by immoral shits in the advertising game to hoodwink us into buying and/or doing things that we don’t need to.
When I was at the tender age of 16, a careers advisor told me that my calling in life was to be an advertising copywriter. Even then, that kid with all his naivety and colossal personality flaws rejected that pathway, due to having something called a soul. I did not want to turn into some self-righteous prick who wore driving gloves, clicked his fingers at waitresses and spoke to his girlfriend only to check whether she’d turned the dishwasher on, nor did I want to change my name to Marcus or Lance. If you have ever seen an episode of Mad Men, you’ll know that the USA has been a society that has revolved around advertising since the fifties. In England, we are not a society based around advertising, but we are becoming a society that is being manipulated by language.
Let me give you an example, the other day I bought a bag of McCain Oven chips. As I rarely eat oven chips these days, I consulted the cooking instructions, expecting to read something roughly like this:
1. Pre Heat Oven to 220 Celsius
2. Place chips evenly onto baking tray
3. Cook for 12-15 mins until golden brown.
Basic, shorthand instructions. Simple, clinical. A concise direction of how to cook these chips. But no, some advertising tools using their advertising tools had come up with:
1. Warm up your oven to 220 Celsius
2. Spread your chips in one layer on a baking tray
3. Pop them in the oven for 12-15 minutes until they’re all lovely and golden and brown
Now, I’m sorry, but it seems to me that there is only one thing happening here: this bag of oven chips is trying to be my friend. There is no other possibility, given the words and phrases that this bag of frozen comestibles is uttering to me, probably in the voice of Caroline Quentin in one of her “attractive menopausal woman” roles. Warm is so much cosier a word than heat. Warm is what you get when you’re wearing a cardigan, or you’re in bed with a hot water bottle and some cocoa. Heat is what you find in the fiery cauldron of hell. Also, the repeated use of the word your. Your oven, your chips, your friend, your very own less-than-5%-fat soul mate. So vomit-inducingly personal. Then we have to “pop them in the oven!” Like when your dear old primary school teacher with her glasses on a string of beads used to say “Pop it on my desk.” After the 12-15 minutes, which presumably you’ve spent cuddled up on the couch watching Last Of The Summer Wine with your now slightly emptier bag of oven chips, they’ll be “all lovely and golden and brown.” Oooo… all lovely and golden and brown, words that make you feel like dear old grandma is wrapping a big woolly blanket round you while Grandad throws another log on the fire. Then, we’re told to “Enjoy!” With an exclamation mark. Can someone tell this bunch of pseudo-new age arseholes at McCain that no-one enjoys oven chips. We buy them because we are either too lazy or too fat to cook proper chips. And I wouldn’t even want to be friends with a bag of proper chips, let alone oven chips. So as far as I’m concerned, oven chips can knob off.
It seems to be mainly the food and drink industry which is most manipulative with their use of words. If you buy an Innocent smoothie, for example, where once a fruit drink would have been labelled something like “Apple and Blackcurrant,” the heartless bastards at Innocent, again conning you into thinking that they’re your little buddies, badge their equivalent product “Apples and Blackcurrants.” How does the plural make it sound somehow softer and nicer? Evidently it does, but how? How have these people somehow managed to slip our collective sub-consciousness this linguistic Rohypnol? Its all about tweaking perfectly standard phrases just that tiny bit to make us fall for their crappy product. I’ll give you another example that just crept up on me a few weeks ago.
Myself and most of the people who write for this site live in a city called Hull in East Yorkshire in England, and for those of you who’ve never been, it is not a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis like London or even Manchester, it is a dockside industrial community of about 230,000 people and the nearest major city is sixty miles away. Around the turn of the millenium, the local council embarked on a so-called re-generation project which wasn’t terribly successful, but one of the upshots of it was that a street on the edge of the city centre called Princes Avenue unexpectedly became very prosperous, and many local entrepreneurs opened a series of horrific things called cafe-bars. They are designed to make vacuous egotists feel important. Now, if you go into anyone of these establishments for your lunch, you can peruse the trendy chalk-board menu and you will notice, in fact you probably won’t notice because it’s done so subversively, that anything on the menu that is fried is referred to as being pan-fried. Why? I’ll tell you; its because the word fried on its own brings to mind images of grease, chip fat, cholesterol, clogged veins, heart-attacks, ugh its bad for you don’t eat it go jogging instead! But with pan-fried its:
“Pan-fried? They fry it in a pan? Jesus they know what they’re doing here don’t they? This is a classy place.”
Justin walks over to the bar to be served by Troy the barman, who is six foot five, shaven head/designer stubble, wearing a skin-tight black tee-shirt and has a tattoo of Che Guevara on his neck.
“Hi there bud, can I get the Pan-fried Fish Finger Sandwich and some homemade chips please?”
“Of course, sir”
“How many fish fingers do you get?”
“You get two sir.”
“Ok. How much is that?”
“Six pounds ninety-five, sir.”
“Six pounds ninety five?”
“Well, they are pan-fried, sir.”
“I suppose you’re right. While I’m at it, you know that out-of-date Polish lager that your governor bought off those Latvian sailors for twelve quid a barrel in the Green Bricks the other night?”
“Well tell me its a wheat beer from the Czech Republic, serve me it in a vase and I’ll give you £4.10 a pint for it.”
“Ok, sir. I’ll bring your food over in about an hour and a half.”
Words are being twisted and corrupted by people who want you to buy things. You are a target market. Every word that you see on a billboard or tv screen is put there to make you try and spend your money. And I maybe naive and romantic, but words should not be used to make money. What of beauty, emotion and feeling? What of love, Mr McCain Oven Chips guy? What of love? People like you have caused the English language to suffer the most spectacular fall from grace in the history of the world.
Actually, the second worst.
As we all know, this was the worst.
Allen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014