On the whole, those who worry excessively about usage are a tiresome bunch. More mad correspondence is stimulated by the mildest grammatical heresy than any other subject, with the possible exceptions of cats, Myra Hindley and unidentified flying objects. Already the publication of the New Oxford Dictionary has sent the Daily Mail intellectual Paul Johnson into orbit, boasting that he has never let his participles dangle in public, revealing how the changed pronunciation of the word "harass" is part of a black conspiracy, and pointing out that dictionaries are now being complied by dangerous, unmarried feminists.
That's the kind of thing you start believing, if you worry too much about words.
On the other hand, the new competitiveness between reference book publishers is having one particularly alarming effect. Trying to be bigger and better than the opposition, dictionaries have become absurdly inclusive, clogging our poor overloaded brains with ever more useless verbiage.
The time has come for a change of direction, for a dictionary that ruthlessly excludes words and phrases that are redundant, meaningless or simply annoying.
Gorgeous. Always a dodgy adjective, this word has caused many a trashy potboiler to be hurled across the room. Significantly, neither the Penguin nor the Pan dictionary of quotations can find a single worthwhile sentence ever uttered or written containing the word, while the Collins version can only include a couple of feeble references, both to "the gorgeous East", by Milton and Wordsworth. But the death-blow to "gorgeous" was dealt by Chris de Burgh who used it in his revolting ballad Lady in Red, since when no one of taste or sensitivity has even thought it, let alone put it down on paper.
Inappropriate. Catch-all weasel-word of the Nineties, used by thin-lipped puritans too wet to use the words "wrong" and "immoral".
Neutrally. Appearing on every other page of Dick Francis novels where characters ask, reply, shrug and even laugh neutrally, this adverb is used to inject spurious significance into a pointless exchange.
Aga saga. In a careless moment, I coined this phrase a few years ago, since when it has regularly been used by idle journalists to denote a genre of book they can't be bothered to describe. Always fairly meaningless, the term has rightly irritated Joanna Trollope and has now outlived what little usefulness it ever had. Its usage license is herewith formally revoked.
Politically correct. An all-purpose phrase of little content used to prop up the rickety arguments advanced by right-wing columnists. Eg, no fewer than four appearances in the above-mentioned Paul Johnson article. Use should be rationed to a maximum of once every thousand words.
G-Spot. Invented in the early Seventies by a couple of sex-crazed Americans, who claimed to have discovered the source of supreme sexual ecstasy, this concept has caused untold heartache and discord to couples who for years fumbled about each other's nether regions to little or no effect. It's now clear that, like the Loch Ness Monster, the G-Spot does not in fact exist and need only be of interest to the mentally frail.
Unacceptable. See inappropriate.
As it were. Much favoured by would-be humorists, this phrase is clunkingly deployed to indicate a witticism. Eg, "When Bill summoned Monica to the White House for an oral briefing, as it were." It's time for these writers either to avoid jokes or, if they have to nudge the reader in the ribs, use the more honest, if equally clumsy, exclamation mark.
Gingerly. One of those irritating words that can't make up its mind if it's an adjective or an adverb, gingerly is now used only by writers of children's books caught in a Fifties time-warp.
Chattering classes. See politically correct.
In the end. Used by journalists eager to convince readers that an argument has been neatly brought to its logical conclusion, this phrase is invariably a con. Eg, "In the end, inappropriate usage must remain unacceptable for even the most gingerly, as it were, member of the politically correct chattering classes."
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