Brian Viner: What's not to like? Plenty that I hear

We all seem to have words and phrases we can't stand
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The Independent Online

Love, Ali McGraw once said, means never having to say you're sorry. Not in our house. Here, love means never saying "24/7". It sets my wife's teeth on edge, which obviously I try not to do, which is why I also avoid "No-brainer" and "It's not rocket science". In return, she never says eaterie when she means restaurant, or moniker when she means name, which are two of my betes noires. We're both cool with bete noire, incidentally.

I don't know when this Meldrewishness set in, but I do know we're not alone. Practically everyone I know over the age of about 30 has words, phrases or references they can't stand, and yours might well include the use of Victor Meldrew, a sitcom character, to indicate grumpy intolerance.

The strange thing is the extent to which one man's meat is another man's poison. A colleague of mine recoils as if shot when he hears "What's not to like", whereas I can't understand what's to dislike.

I raised this issue around the dinner table a couple of evenings ago, and was surprised to see my friend Rupert almost gagging with disgust as he articulated the words, "It's a grey area".

That one has never bothered me, indeed I have deployed it myself. Nor has "comfort zone", to which Rupert's wife Louise claims to be allergic. How interesting that one will never venture into a grey area, while the other refuses to enter a comfort zone. It must be the secret of a happy marriage.

As for the words and phrases that tend to unite us in our antipathy, many of them are American in origin. Unfortunately, those of us with teenage children are fighting a losing battle.

In the past month I have heard my kids refer to the trash when they meant the rubbish and to tuxedo (apparently the name of a town in New York State, where the super-wealthy settled in the 19th century and where one fellow, circa 1893, invented a new style by cutting the tails of his formal dinner coat) instead of dinner-jacket.

Last week my 13-year-old son referred to the mailman rather than the postman. I was horrified. "Even the Americans must prefer postman, or they would have called the film 'The Mailman Always Knocks Twice'," I raged. "Actually, it was 'The Postman Always Rings Twice'," said my wife, briefly forgetting that she was supposed to be on my side.

My son then made the pertinent point that language is ever-evolving, and that there were doubtless words I used at 13 that had my own parents despairing. There was no arguing with that, although I don't think we were quite as fervently in thrall to American culture as they are. But maybe we were. It was the heyday of Starsky & Hutch, after all.

Of course, it isn't just teenspeak that has been Americanised; rare are Britain's office buildings that don't have at least one elephant in the room, or that don't encourage blue-sky thinking or pushing the envelope (supposedly introduced to the vernacular by Tom Wolfe in his 1979 book The Right Stuff).

But it can't all be blamed on the Americans; we are quite capable of coming up with our own linguistic excrescences. Moreover, all these expressions hit the nail on the head when they were coined. It's just that they are fatally devalued when they are used 24/7. Sorry, love.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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