Many years ago, I had a part-time job as a gardener in Ladbroke Square in Notting Hill. The full-time gardener, a Norfolk man called Mr Pyke, was a proper gardener who knew everything there was to be known about flowers. Garden flowers, that is. It occurred to me one day that although he talked a lot about flowers, he had never once mentioned the wild kind.
"Do you have any interest in wild flowers, Mr Pyke?" I asked him once.
He looked puzzled, and thought for a moment.
"Weeds, you mean," he said finally.
Looking back on the exchange now, I can see that it was the first time I had really become aware of one of the most abiding features of the English language: the way that you can choose one of a pair of words to describe the same thing, depending on whether you want to be respectful or pejorative, grand or mundane, posh or platitudinous...
Here's another example. The word "gel" has become enormously popular in my lifetime. There was a time when it was only used in the theatre, of certain lighting effects. Then it started being used in products such as shampoo and bath additives. More recently it has cropped up in toothpaste, and now there is a popular line of pens described as "gel pens".
In the dictionary my granny gave me when I was a 10-year-old, "gel" was defined as "a semi-solid colloidal solution". A more modern dictionary defines it as "A thick oily substance, used in some hair styles and in make-up". But I'll tell you another word for it: "Gunge".
You say "gel". I say "gunge".
He says "weeds". I say "wild flowers".
We say "historic". They say "heritage".
We say "historic place". They say "heritage site"...
Because English is a resourceful language, there always seems to be an alternative word, whether you are trying to build something up or pull it down.
If you are talking about a run-of-the-mill film, for instance, or what the Americans call a movie, you just call it a "film" or "movie", but if on the other hand you want it to sound grand, you call it a "motion picture".
If it's a really expensive film, it may even get an Oscar. If you want an Oscar to sound grand, you don't call it an Oscar – you call it an "Academy Award".
But why an "Academy Award"? Because the people who hand out these gongs call themselves the "Motion Picture Academy".
Academy? But why do they call themselves an academy? Are there any full-time professors at the "Motion Picture Academy"?
They say "Academy", we say "old boys' club".
Businessmen call it a "communication", but we know it's just a "letter".
We call it a "diary", but if a publisher likes it enough to publish it, he calls it a "journal".
The other day I caught the credits at the end of an American animated cartoon. The people who had done the voices were all credited. They weren't listed as "voices", however. They were listed as "The Voice Talents of..."
We say "look for". Advertisers say "seek".
We say "a search for". Advertisers say "a quest for".
We say "clean". They say "cleanse".
We say "doctor". Doctors say "physician".
We say "peaceful". They say "tranquil".
I say "flower". They say "bloom".
We call it a "tribute". They call it an "hommage".
We say "glop". They say "lotion". Or "salve". Or "liniment". Or "ointment". Or anything that sounds grander than "glop"...
We say "corner shop", but they call it a "minimarket".
Occasionally, just very occasionally, it goes the other way and people start downgrading things, making them sound less pretentious, choosing the word which sounds less posh.
They used to say "hors d'oeuvre", but now they say "starters".
They still say "dessert" sometimes, but "pudding" has made a nice little comeback.
Well, this is a game that anyone can play, and once you get the idea, you can easily have a go yourself.
I say "have a go".
You can say "be interactive", if you like.Reuse content