What do words really mean?
This is apparently the question the American writer David Foster Wallace was struggling with when he died four years ago. This week, extracts from his new book, Both Flesh and Not, revealed notes for a dictionary of his own devising. Its hidden purpose? To unpick some of the euphemisms of modern English. To reveal how stupid we’re all in danger of becoming. Although, probably he would have argued that it’s already too late.
There are words we don’t use much and words we use too much. Or, rather, utilise too much. Such as utilise: “a noxious puff-word”, says the American novelist. He also hated pulchritude: “a paradoxical noun because it refers to a kind of beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language”. And unique: “[it] already means one-of-a-kind. So the... phrase ‘very unique’ is at best redundant and at worst stupid, like ‘audible to the ear’ or ‘rectangular in shape’”.
His list pokes gentle fun at how meaningless language has now become, especially in the age of abbreviated digital contact. It has got to a point where almost everything is jargon. His new book is the ideal Christmas gift for the pedant in your life (and there are plenty of us about). Who doesn’t think that much of what is said is, basically, nonsensical?
The only problem is that only fragments of Foster Wallace’s intended guide survive. And there is no British Christmas 2012 edition. Although that is probably a good thing because a Glossary of Foolish British Festive Recessional Language would be a very long document indeed, full of words and expressions, all of them devoid of pulchritude, over-utilised and with exceedingly unique non-meanings.
This week alone, you definitely needed a dictionary to understand the news, what with hyperemesis gravidarum everywhere. This, ostensibly, is a severe, rare form of morning sickness. In reality? It’s a mass media virus that causes communication outlets spontaneously to vomit made-up information about newly pregnant royals. Symptoms include: equating changes of hairstyle with awareness of conception; predicting outcomes when (a) the outcome cannot possibly be known or (b) the outcome will be one of two things (boy or girl); and generally getting very excited about nothing. It is a highly contagious and infectious disease and can only really be cured by leaving the country. Utilise any opportunities while you can.
A close linguistic cousin of hyperemesis is the ever-popular noun togetherness, the state which we’re all in. This is a prolonged state of demented double-think that pretends all members of society are equally adversely affected by the recession, all the more so in the run-up to Christmas. It’s a paradoxical expression because it implies that there was togetherness to begin with and that the togetherness is ongoing. Interestingly, those who feel most together in the togetherness are often seen as actually the least together.
See also welfare state. This is best defined as an antiquated, 20th-century notion that the less well-off in society should receive support when life is tough, which is really a pretty Christmassy thought when you think about it. But it now contradicts the fundamental idea behind togetherness, the state in which we’re all in, and therefore appears to be redundant.
Unlike the newly resurgent Festive Jumper Day which I had to look up yesterday. When did this become a thing? This is one of many completely unwanted, random and multiplying charity days when momentary altruism meets lifelong consumerism. It falls on Friday December 14, a day on which you are supposed to pay £1 to Save the Children for the privilege of wearing cheesy festive knitwear.
On this day, everyone pretends Shakin’ Stevens is still in the charts and we have travelled back to 1981. In reality, the return of the Festive Jumper craze justifies the existence of such phenomena as a horrible £695 Stella McCartney jumper with reindeers on (this really exists). See also, togetherness, in which we’re all in.
One unpulchritudinous expression that keeps popping up in end-of-year lists? Shit Awards. The constant, supposedly ironic celebration of all that is ugliest and most hideous in British society, see this week’s “Shit London Awards 2012.” Not a week passes by without the marking of some exciting new low. In reality? Nihilistic, self-loathing, These awards are all about a refusal to enjoy anything. See also, Festive Jumper Day.
A new UK entry for late 2012? Tax arrangements. These are nominally arrangements by which you pay tax. Now it turns out they are arrangements by which you arrange to not pay any tax. Generally, these long-term arrangements are followed by a re-arrangement where you announce that you’re now paying more tax than you ever expected to.
See also, coffee, synonym for “milk which once came into contact with a coffee bean”, or eggnog latte, synonym for “expensive Christmas drink”, see, again, togetherness, in which we’re all in.
If David Foster Wallace were alive, I think he would certainly find space for all these in his dictionary, alongside one of his own favourite words, feckless: “It lets you be extremely dismissive and mean without sounding mean.” Feckless. Hey! We have that in the Glossary of Nonsensical British Festive Recessional Language, too! Let’s utilise it! Oh.