The utilisations and abuses of modern English

‘Tax arrangements’ turn out to be arrangements by which you arrange to not pay any tax.

Related Topics

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.

Twitter: @VivGroskop

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

There's a mainstream alternative to George Osborne's economics

John Healey
Stuart Baggs, who has died at the age of 27  

Stuart Baggs dead: It is not fair to brand him as a buffoon

Tom Peck
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open