Clear English? Chance would be a fine thing, not half

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The Independent Online
SOME nations pride themselves on having a clear and logical language. The French, for instance, point to their language as being the clearest and most logical in the world. The Germans, similarly, tend to point to their own language as the clearest and most logical in the world, and for all I know the Italians and Spanish may say the same about their own language, or at least about the Latin tongue they all come from, which was the clearest and most logical in the ancient world.

The British have never made any such claim. We tend to think of English as either a practical language or a poetic language, if we think of English at all, which is doubtful. Because if we did think about English at all, we would soon realise that it is one of the muddiest languages in the world, full of words and phrases that do not easily give up their secret. Sometimes we cannot even hear what people are saying. We find it hard to tell the difference between 'fourteen' and 'forty'. We can spell words different ways (Hullo, Hallo, Hello) and we can pronounce some words different ways (either 'eether' or 'ither'). Here in Edinburgh you can be listening to Radio Forth or Radio Four, and you have to listen hard to make out which one people are talking about.

Meanings waver all over the place, too. So badly in the case of the word 'funny', that when someone uses it we often have to ask them which meaning they intend: 'Is that 'funny ha, ha' or 'funny peculiar'?' I always think that when pedants lash themselves into a fury over lost causes such as the split infinitive and the misuse of 'refute', the retention of the word 'when', and the new meaning of the word 'hopefully', they would be far better employed cleaning up some of the muddy corners in the English language.

The phrase 'next Monday', for instance. How often do you hear conversations such as this: 'When are you going off on holiday?'

'Next Monday.'

'The day after tomorrow?'

'No, not this Monday - next Monday.'

'But the day after tomorrow is next Monday. It's the next Monday we have.'

'Yes, but next Monday is what we call the one after. This Monday is Monday next.'

'But the one after is Monday week.'

'That's as may be. I'm going on my holidays the day after tomorrow.'

'And when are you coming back?'

'A fortnight Monday.'

'Does that mean . . ?'

And so on. All very muddy, isn't it? There are plenty more like that. What about 'Handsome is as handsome does'? Is it a useful expression and, if it is, why don't we say: 'Useful is as useful does?' Why don't we extend it to other adjectives, if it is so useful, in a spirit of adventurousness and creativity? That'll be the day . . .

That'll be the day] There is another expression which means nothing. What day will it be? The day it happens? Well, of course it will. But if someone tells me what it actually means, that'll be the day. Or to put it another way, chance would be a fine . . . I first came across chance being a fine thing about 15 years ago and I have been searching ever since (not full- time, admittedly) for the real meaning and origin of this phrase. Chance would be a fine thing . . . it sounds vaguely Shakespearian, but damned if I can even get a sniff of the point of departure of this phrase.

Another phrase which could be usefully expanded is one which I think does have a meaning, and that is, 'He's a musician's musician', referring to a player who is so classy that he appeals only to other musicians, not the general public. But why not have other phrases such as, 'He's a film director's musician'? I can think of one or two composers who write for the theatre and are highly thought of there and not elsewhere. They are 'director's musicians' surely?

What about David Mellor? Not exactly a politician, is he? Nor, I would say, is he a broadcaster's broadcaster. But I do think he may be a broadcaster's politician, just as there are others who could be a politician's broadcaster because they certainly are not anyone else's broadcasters.

Not half. Not in my book. You can say that again. There you go then . . .