A US college named Marist (founded by the hypochondriac wife of Niles Crane in Frasier, perhaps?) has come up with yet another list of the most annoying expressions in English. In first place is "whatever" – as employed by teenagers when adults are attempting to impart wisdom – followed by "you know", "it is what it is" and "at the end of the day".
The Americans have caught this last one from us, which serves them right after all the infuriating usages they've exported to Britain, mainly via the sitcom Friends ("you guys", "can I get a skinny latte?", "Oh-my-GAD"). I can actually remember when "at the end of the day" entered popular speech after Harold Macmillan used it to title the final volume of his autobiography. For years, it was the faithful standby of waffling politicians and football managers justifying defeat. Now it trips so often from the tongues of feral youths that I think we should name them "Y'endadays". ("Y'endaday I turned round and bloody bopped 'im one.")
But the most annoying expression? What about "are you all right there?", which almost all shop assistants now prefer to the stuffy and archaic "may I help you?". Or "sign this for me", as if that stony-faced post office counter person is involving you in some private, intimate transaction? Or "it was a game of two halves"? Or "he's in a meeting"? Or "I'm not a happy bunny"? Or "the thing is is"?
I had precious little sympathy with the late Clement Freud, but on one point I was absolutely with him. In his later years, Freud could not abide his local greengrocer addressing him jocularly as "young man". It has happened to me, too, and there's really no reply other than "I'm not a young man", a fact to which one prefers not to draw attention.
The other day at M&S, I was repeatedly called "my friend" by the hearty young checkout bloke. Again, what could one say but the impossibly pompous "I'm not your friend, I'm your customer"?
I just thought of that great western The Comancheros in which a bumptious riverboat gambler keeps doing it to John Wayne until discouraged by a pile-driving left hook. "Pretty soon," drawls Wayne, "you're gonna get the idea that I ain't yer friend."
Goodwill? It'll never catch on
Each time I pass James Smith and Sons' umbrella shop in London's New Oxford Street, I wonder how much longer I'll have the joy of looking at it. The façade has remained unchanged for more than 100 years. We all know what tends to befall such places in the rising sludgy tide of mobile phone shops and Starbucks.
Heaven knows how they can pay West End rents. I've had one of their golf umbrellas for 12 years, and periodically take it back for small repairs. The latest problem was hardly major. But the manager noticed an even tinier one. The button at the end of the furling ribbon had worked loose. There and then, he sewed on a new one. "How much?" I asked. "Nothing," he replied. "It's included in the £5 charge for re-sewing the spoke."
When Smith and his Sons set up in the 19th century, shops used to include something called "goodwill". And they've clearly never forgotten it. Sod off, Starbucks.
We've had enough of this cruelty
Am I alone in getting thoroughly cheesed off with The X Factor? When the show began I welcomed it, both as a springboard for new talent and a sign that Britain wasn't such a social bomb site after all. There were really were ambitious, dedicated people out there, backed by loving, supportive families. But now content takes second place to packaging: as Kenneth Tynan once said of The Johnny Carson Show, there's almost nothing to it but foreplay.
The parade of the hopelessly untalented and self-deluded at the audition stages is nothing short of sadistic. Mediocrities never seem to get a look-in; you must either be a potential winner or borderline special needs. There's hardly less sadism when each judge tells their group who is and is not going forward to the next stage, spinning it out endlessly. "I've made my decision ... and ... it's bad news ... you're through to Boot Camp." If Cheryl Cole really aspires to be our new Princess Diana, she should refuse to have any part of this.
For every minute of performance, there are hours of padding. And the set-ups are becoming laughable. A contestant picks a hopelessly wrong song and is stopped halfway by Cowell. "Can I try another song, please, please, Simon?" After nail-biting deliberation, the great man assents. And whaddayouknow – the backing track is already cued up.
The judging panel hasn't been the same since Sharon Osbourne left. Until this year I couldn't look at Dannii Minogue without thinking of Bertie Wooster. ("Dannii spelt, I'll warrant, with two Is, Jeeves." "Indubitably, sir.") I like her much more now that she's cut right back on the slap and started wearing turbans. She may look as if she's still stuck in make-up, but she's really the nicer.