Beware the language hooligans

THERE WAS rather ominous irony in the ability of the New Oxford Dictionary of English to displace many a more dynamic item from the front pages of the mid-week newspapers.

Manufacturing industry recessions, heroin addicts dying in prison - all this apparently was as nought compared to the news that the lexicographers had decided that, in certain circumstances, it was permissible or even desirable to split the infinitive. The effect, oddly enough, was as if some archaic piece of moral legislation had been removed from the statute book.

But then language, or rather correct usage, is an English fixation on about the same level as sex or weather. An interesting cultural demarcation line as well; the American media cheerfully coins a neologism a week on the basis that language is an enormous party where everyone is welcome. Yet here nearly every transatlantic import is greeted with a kind of ritualistic horror, and to use a phrase like "dumbing down", for example, is a sure sign that one is, well, dumbing down. If I had pocketed pounds 10, let us say, from every conversation I have ever been dragged into on the theme of linguistic correctness, then I should not be sitting here making a further contribution to a debate that in a certain quarters - see, for instance, the forays into Fowler that distinguish Anthony Powell's Journals - can come something close to mania.

Amid all the arguments about "to boldy go" and whether "bonk" can be used transitively, it is possible to define four main types of language user. On the one hand are grammatical fundamentalists, the kind of people who don't see anything at all funny in Churchill's preposition-squeezing joke, "That is language up with which I will not put", and regard Yankee noun/verb conversations such as "to impact" as a form of spiritual assault. On the other come the hierophants whose command of grammar is so Olympian that they instinctively know when the rules can be ignored - "It was me," for example, instead of "It was I" - rather in the way that the upper classes instantly divine when it's OK to use bad language. Then there are ordinary decent language users such as you and me, or I, who realise that language is by nature organic, but wonder whether tabloid debasements such as "love-rat" are really in the public interest. Finally, there are language hooligans, for whom any kind of lexicographical reining in is a denial of free expression (a lot of these people work in business) and who seize on phrases like "golden parachutes" and "barn-burner" (one of the New Oxford's latest imports meaning an exciting event) with vulgarian glee.

The ease with which language reinvents itself is a literary historian's commonplace, of course. One of the delights in studying an early-Victorian novelist like Thackeray is the sensation you get in his work of hovering on the cusp of linguistic development - noting a very early usage of a particular phrase, or even its first recorded outing. At the same time, significantly enough, no one was more scrupulous about style or keener to write good, "classical" (ie, Latinate) English.

Much of this evolutionary process inevitably involves words and phrases changing their meanings in ways that defy rearguard actions by the language police. Take the word "groovy". Since the 1960s it has meant "fashionable" or "up to date" but 70 years ago it meant the opposite: "stuck in a groove" or inert. Back in the 1830s, alternatively, the expression "I don't half like him" meant literally that: "I don't like even 50 per cent of him" - ie, don't like him much. The current ironic inflexion (meaning: "I like him rather a lot") came in the mid-19th century.

Yet language growing and renewing itself is different from language being used to slovenly and downright misleading effect. To confuse "imply" and "infer", "refute" and "deny" or the "may/might" distinction, as nearly every newspaper does these days, is not simply idle but potentially inaccurate. After all, "X may have been criminal" (possibility as yet unproven) and "X might have been a criminal" (opportunity never taken up) mean two different things. The same point could be made of "putative', now hardly ever used correctly, which doesn't mean "potential" ("Gordon Brown is a putative Prime Minister") but rather "existing but unknown" ("the child's putative father").

The profound threat to language in this age of modern media communications lies not in split infinitives - to really believe has considerably more force as a phrase than really to believe - or neologisms, many of which turn out to be imaginative additions to the word-kitty, but poverty of thought. A good example of this linguistic slovenliness is the BBC Ceefax news, full of stuff about "cops slam scam" and so on, where everything is reduced to a kind of blaring shorthand for real thought and expression. No one who cares about language should worry themselves unduly about a few split infinitives: it is the people who don't bother to think about they words they use of whom (note the classical sentence structure here) we should be eternally vigilant.