Charles Nevin: The English tongue is the cat's pyjamas

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The Independent Online

Well, I'll go home for my tea! Splendid, even chuffing, news from the University of Leeds, where they are working with the BBC Voices project on examining and cataloguing British dialects. Of course, those of an ordered, forward-looking, sensible turn of mind argue that local vocabulary variations should be dismissed as the obvious enemies of the clear communication which is the purpose of language.

Where I come from, while it would be accepted that such people clearly have all their chairs at home, it would nevertheless be concluded that their failure to appreciate the wit, life and communal effect of these differences leaves them open to the accusation of being daft 'a'p'orths (halfpenny-worths), or, conceivably, great egg waps.

All groups, whether of age, geography or interest, speak two languages, the general and their own. I have just been perusing a list of phrases used by "the youth" which has been issued by Tesco to its older employees. And there's some really colourful and imaginative stuff available from a sector as often accused of inarticulacy as irresponsibility and staying in bed too long. "Laters", as in "see you later", for goodbye, has a fine ring, while "safe, blood" and "phat" as terms of approbation and amity have a dense, Shakespearean quality.

Again, elsewhere, you will have noticed the way in which Mr Blair's Cabinet and large sections of his administration adopted his demotic glottalling; it will be interesting to watch the emergence of much brogueishness in future.

And back in the intricate neighbourhood geographies of Britain, what can compare with the thrill of acceptance as, eventually, everyone doesn't stop talking when you walk in, and you even begin to understand some of what they're saying? It's a vital part of the gentle assimilation and learning of respect for tradition that the proponents of a benevolent Britishness support.

In this way, for example, you will know that you are making it as a Scouser when you understand that "getting off at Edge Hill" is the local argot for coitus interruptus because that station is the last one before the terminus of Lime Street.

I would argue, though, for a wider sharing of some of these conceits. In Lancashire, we can offer, for a lack of intelligence, "he's as soft as my cap"; wider cultural references are evident in the insult, "What are you going to do for a face when King Kong wants his arse back?"; while, for a realistic appraisal of one's abilities in the face of another's expectations, try, "I can do owt except wheel myself in a barrow".

What we need, I realised as I read our report last week about the French Academy, those increasingly mortal immortal guardians of their language, is a similar body here, but more widely drawn, gathering in, approving and publicising robust, imaginatively coined English, from wherever. And whenever: some splendid usages are becoming forgotten, even from early last century. "The cat's pyjamas", say, or, "Well, isn't that the giddy limit?" I myself, when younger, was fond of "by the cringe", and "bish" for an error. Whither?

Consider the potential of a panel comprising, say, Geoffrey Boycott, A S Byatt, Rev Ian Paisley, Shilpa Shetty, Sir Alex Ferguson, Amy Winehouse, Desmond Tutu, Gavin Henson, Imran Khan, Kath, Kim and Germaine, Boris Johnson, Chas, Brian Sewell, Dave, Irvine Welsh, The Wurzels, William Rees-Mogg, Joan Rivers, P Diddy, Ken Dodd and Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss (chair). Phat!

Stand up for ginger rights

Gingerism, prejudice against those with that hair colouring, always lurking, seems to be on the increase. One family in Newcastle has even been forced to move house twice following abuse and violence. Although, as ever, loath to condemn without hard evidence, I wonder whether the prominence of Hazel Blears has anything to do with it. Many claim to find the chair of the Labour Party and deputy leadership candidate intensely irritating; I find her chirpy vivacity most appealing, except when applied to introducing a police state or encouraging trophy consumerism. While we await research, though, I would counsel anyone short from Salford with a penchant for tap dancing, motorcycles and expensive handbags to be extremely wary. Also, to avoid any possibility of further provocation, I am taking the precaution of publishing Hazel's picture in black and white.

* Predictably fascinating news from Almaty, where President Nazarbayev gives his first online news conference this week. Among the most popular questions submitted by Kazakhs eager for his guidance is this: "How does one patch KDE under FreeBSD?" Technical types will recognise this as software related. Other queries include, "What is your mobile phone number?" and "When will the authorities start chopping off civil servants' tongues for lying to the president in the most outrageous way?" We could benefit from this refreshing approach. Here, for starters, are my questions for our leader. 1. Where are you? 2. What's the weather like? 3. Do you want your airmiles? 4. When is the best time to visit Barbados? 5. Is Chief of Peace in Sierra Leone similar to Secretary of State for Defence here? 6. What Sun Protection Factor do you use? 7. When you see the Pope, could you ask him to pray for us, too? 8. How does one get installed a KBE under New Labour now? 9. What on earth have you done to Gordon? 10. Hello, are you still there?

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