20 January 1988: "If it were a crime to misuse words, we could go out and arrest 'refute', 'disinterested' and 'hopefully' tomorrow," says Inspector Millmoss, head of the Word Squad. "Mark you, we'd probably bring Britain to a complete standstill."
The Word Squad? This is a little-known unit at Scotland Yard which acts somewhat like the Pronunciation Unit at the BBC, advising policemen on the legal meanings of words like grievous, affray and nuisance. But Millmoss's major headache is the possibility of legislation making it illegal to use words in a wrong or opposite sense. He has drawn up a list of threatened words.
"Obverse," for example. This means simply the face of a coin, or heads, as it were. But people insist on using it as if it were reverse, or tails. It's not. That's already called reverse.
"Again, people often say things like, "I literally had kittens," which means that they really did have kittens – when what they mean is the exact opposite: "I figuratively had kittens."
Figurative means imaginary or symbolical. "Except if you're talking about painting, curiously, when it means the opposite. Figurative painting is the opposite of abstract painting, and means 'real, descriptive of actuality'," says Millmoss. "Literal, in fact. It just shows you the kind of problem we're up against, when one word can mean two opposite things, simultaneously." The inspector spotted one such problem recently when someone was described as an "outgoing company director". At first he thought this meant "extrovert" or "Rabelaisian", before realising that by outgoing they meant departing. "A better phrase, I thought, would have been 'the retiring company director', but then I realised that 'retiring' means 'shy and introvert' – the exact opposite of 'outgoing'!" Inspector Millmoss is secretly busy compiling a list of words which mean two opposite things at the same time, in the hope of making them exempt from future legislation.
"'Just' and 'quite' are high up the list. They can both mean absolutely (just wonderful, quite wonderful) and they can also mean not very, as in just tolerable or quite drinkable. The word 'mind' is another. It can actually mean object to or be very fond of." Could he give us an example? "Certainly. I mind your smoking – I object to your smoking. I mind your baby – I look after your baby. Of course, in Scotland it means something else again – I mind your baby means I remember your baby. The word 'doubt' means the opposite in Scotland as well: it means to believe strongly. But I doubt there'd be different laws for the Scots."
Millmoss hopes, above all, to get to grips with strange modern corruptions.
"'Personal stereo' is wrong. It suggests that only the user can hear it. 'Sporting behaviour' is wrong; sporting behaviour now involves cursing umpires, breaking tennis rackets and stamping on people for money. 'Local radio' is a complete misnomer; most of what passes for local radio in Bristol or Hull is music recorded somewhere in New York or California. I would say that most local radio in Britain is distinguishable only by the occasional local traffic or weather report.
"And what about 'morning' and 'evening' papers? Morning papers appear the previous evening; evening papers are always on sale in the morning first. I'm tempted to include Today on Radio 4 in this, as it tends to report what happened yesterday."
Millmoss also keeps a sharp eye on expressions rendered invalid by changes in fashion or technology. "He smokes like a chimney" is valueless now that most chimneys are blocked or smokeless by law. "The salt of the earth" worries him as a term of praise, now that salt is an addictive white powder which causes terrible diseases.
Millmoss adds: "And I'm afraid that to talk about a rail guide as 'the traveller's Bible' is quite fallacious. The Bible is perceived as an old, out-of-date book crammed with suspect facts; quite the wrong thing for a rail traveller, who wants something less old hat. Actually, 'old hat' itself is now misleading; old hats are very much back in fashion."
And if no law against word 'abuse' was passed, and all his work was a waste of time? "I'd take it like a man," smiles Millmoss. "That is to say, I'd whinge, moan and blame somebody else, and then go out and get drunk."Reuse content