D J Taylor: The name game

Definitions of the words 'hero', 'tragic' and 'educational' have changed, says our commentator. Even Guns N' Roses no longer means what it once did
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There is a kind of natural law which says that whenever seismic shifts start to take place beneath the culture, the first casualty shall be language. By far the most interesting thing about yesterday's £20m cricket match between England and the Stanford Superstars – a rich man's vanity project that seemed to embarrass even the sportsmen taking part – was the way in which it was advertised. One ad featured the England captain Kevin Pietersen and his opposite number balancing crossed cricket bats behind their heads in the approved Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels style, on either side of a caption that read "Heroes will be made". Linguistic exaggeration winds through the media like bindweed, of course, but even so I was startled to find a professional cricketer whose mission is to stroke a ball over a patch of Antiguan grass (a none too well-cut patch of grass, by the look of it) described as a "hero".

The same sense of a word tugged so emphatically free of its original moorings as to be rendered almost useless was stirred by this month's Mojo tribute to Pink Floyd's Rick Wright, whose death at the age of 64 was described as "tragic". Sad and regrettable maybe, but in what way tragic? Tess of the d'Urbervilles may have died a tragic death, once the President of the Immortals had finished his sport with her, but a sixty-something musician with a glittering career behind him?

At least this lexical sleight of hand has some faint connection to the thing it tries to garnish. Much more common is the habit of abstract nouns to undergo a 180-degree pivot. Just as "no exit" nearly always means "exit, if you go about it in the right way", so "democracy" as used by a modern politician nearly always means "oligarchical fix". "Consultation", as employed by, say, a local council with regard to a planning inquiry, means "a decision has been taken which it would not yet be prudent of us to reveal". Worst of all, perhaps, is "liberal", which when used by or to describe a left-of-centre newspaper tends to mean "fundamentally illiberal", or rather: "You are perfectly entitled to your own opinion, but expect to be mocked or derided if it doesn't coincide with ours."

* And if the adjective "democratic" no longer has anything much to do with democracy, so "educational" tends to have very little grounding in dictionary definitions of "education". As used by the Government in respect of the university system, for example, it nearly always means: "Let's keep the kids off the dole queue." The week's university news was the revelation that the person working the Ministry of Education abacus has under-budgeted by £200m and that to balance the books the grant threshold will have to be raised. We are assured that no poor students will be disadvantaged.

By chance, on the day this story broke, I happened to be lecturing a room full of undergraduates at the University of Ulster on the notably enticing topic of "the point of view in short fiction". It was quite a small roomful. In fact, the participants could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. Where was everybody, I gamely inquired. Probably labouring at their part-time jobs, the students explained. They were nice, intelligent, confiding girls, if a touch exhausted-looking. Unprompted, they began to volunteer tales of student debt, of struggles to earn the money to pay for their tuition even as they tried to find the time to pursue it. Most of them claimed to have been "pressured" into higher education by their schoolteachers and thought their degrees had been "devalued". There is a moral here somewhere.

* If the world of higher education seems to have lost whatever authenticity it once possessed, then the rumpus-room of popular music has turned more bogus still. News last week that those hoary metal merchants Led Zeppelin were planning a reunion tour was greeted with a lot less enthusiasm than might have been predicted. Even the fabled promoter Harvey Goldsmith had his doubts. The problem, he explained, was that with the original drummer, John Bonham, long since dead and singer Robert Plant avoidably absent, only 50 per cent of the real Zep would be available, and the punters might not like it. This raises the interesting question: when is a rock band not a rock band?

As it happens, my all-time favourite group, Magazine, are out on the road again in the spring, after 27 years away, minus their founding guitarist John McGeogh – not unreasonably, as he died in 2004. Slightly further down the scale, Bruce Foxton and Rick Butler are packing them in under the banner "From The Jam", but without the presence of the singer, guitarist and song-writer Paul Weller who has written the project off as "cabaret". There are, a quick headcount suggests, two proper Buzzcocks left in The Buzzcocks (also touring in the spring). Sometimes, though, the resemblance to bygone incarnations is uncomfortably remote. After all, Guns N' Roses, whose new album hits the shops this month, harbours only a single echt member, frontman Axl Rose. You'd think the fans would complain.

* The authenticity test becomes even more problematic when applied to professional football. Take, for example, the picaresque career of Harry Redknapp, manager of Portsmouth FC until sometime last Saturday night and grandly ushered into the managerial dug-out at Tottenham Hotspur late on Sunday afternoon. For non-aficionados, Mr Redknapp, or "Judas" as the Portsmouth fans now apostrophise him, is one of the game's great survivors. He is also one of its great wheeler-dealers, a legendary importer of new talent and ransacking despoiler of transfer kitties. Already, a week into the job, Harry has his eye on the January transfer window, not to mention the boys he left behind him at Fratton Park. A volatile situation has been compounded by the statement from Portsmouth's incoming manager, Tony Adams, to the effect that any malcontents are welcome to leave. Even a diehard fan might wonder if the team Harry puts out in the spring will have anything much to do with Tottenham Hotspur as currently constituted.

It is the same down here in Norwich, where the team now festers in the lower reaches of the Championship. There is no money, so many of the players are shipped in on loan. No one in the squad has any connection with the county of Norfolk. So why the fans' loyalty, and, in particular, that agonised perception that anyone who transfers himself to another club has "betrayed" us?

I doubt Harry has ever read any highbrow literary criticism, but the cry of the French theorist that tous les significations sont arbitraires – all significations are arbitrary – might have been written expressly for him.

* Even history –especially history, one might say – has a habit of turning bogus on you. The Gosford Park scriptwriter Julian Fellowes's new novel, Past Imperfect (Weidenfeld £17.99), set in the hothouse world of the late 1960s deb scene, is an altogether curious artefact – less a work of fiction than an accumulation of obscure social detail. Several hundred words, for instance, are devoted to the vexed question of when it was that white ties ceased to be de rigueur for formal evening wear.

But in one of his fixations Fellowes is spot on. This is his idea that the 1960s, as popularly represented by television and cinema – beads, kaftans, free love and student riots – really only happened in a few square miles of central London. The same point is made by the social historian Dominic Sandbrook in his invaluable study White Heat. In one of the Radio 4 programmes got up to commemorate 1968, in which busloads of newly respectable Labour MPs reminisced about the storming of the Grosvenor Square barricades, Sandbrook briskly debunked les évènements. Most people in 1968, he suggested, were enjoying Dad's Army and preparing to vote Conservative.

The same goes for the decade's great sporting triumphs. In saluting the Cup-winners of 1966 one always wonders about the 30 million who didn't watch the game on television. What were they doing?

* But some quests for the authentically real seem less admissible. I was fascinated to learn that the next project to which Professor Richard Dawkins intends to set his hand is a work which, according to The Daily Telegraph, will warn young people about the dangers of believing in "anti-scientific" fairytales. Dawkins has described it as "a children's book on how to think about the world". I was irresistibly reminded of the cleverest scientist I knew at school, a boy who collected four straight As at A-level, won a maths scholarship to Cambridge and whose highly innocuous hobby it was to collect bus tickets.