Dominic Lawson: If only they could speak proper English

If there is one pointless word spreading like a virus throughout British journalism it is 'famously'
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Do you ever have the sense, when listening to a supposedly serious news programme, that it is April 1st? Yesterday I had just this sense – of being subjected to a spoof – courtesy of Radio 4's Today programme.

Sarah Montague was interviewing someone called Ian Bruton-Simmonds, apparently a member of "The Queen's English Society". We were told that Mr Bruton-Simmonds, along with a number of others, had sent an "open letter" of complaint to the chairman of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons.

Specifically, the signatories were unhappy with the incorrect use of words and grammar by BBC presenters and correspondents; they urged the Corporation to appoint a "language chief" who would enforce correct usage.

I would imagine that about half the letters sent in by listeners to Radio 4 – if you include those objecting to accents – are complaints about various alleged atrocities inflicted on the English language by reporters and announcers. In other words, there is already a vast army of unpaid language monitors.

The difficulty is that many of those who are most furiously pedantic themselves have only a flimsy grasp of the complexities and subtleties of the English language.

Mr Bruton-Simmonds seemed neither furious nor especially pedantic. Even so – and this is why I thought that I was listening to some sort of spoof to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Today programme – he seemed unable to construct a single coherent sentence. He addressed Ms Montague, in what sounded like a South African accent, as follows: "Let us say you give a sentence that can be improved. A language adviser should say to you, 'This sentence you said. Here is a sentence better.'" Perhaps Afrikaans is Mr Bruton-Simmonds' first language – although his name would suggest otherwise; in any event, this was fine comedy.

Entranced by this new comic talent, I looked up Mr Bruton-Simmonds on the internet, and traced his letter back to its source, a lecture he gave to the "Churchill Society" entitled "A criticism of Modern Linguistics with Suggestion for Improvement of English through the BBC". It declares that a broadcaster's "blunder" is "flashed into a million ears with high-voltage authority, to be taken up by the indiscrimination that abounds in modern business, politics and teaching". You can understand what he is saying, even though you know perfectly well that indiscrimination will have a hard time taking things up, or indeed putting things down.

This, in fact, is the standard defence of the meaning-is-no-more-than-common-usage brigade against the strictures of groups such as the Queen's English Society. It argues that there really is no such thing as correct or incorrect usage in a living language – in spoken English, colloquialism is all.

I share Mr Bruton-Simmonds' instinctive horror at this doctrine of linguistic relativism – which is why I was dismayed to learn that his letter, at least as reported by the BBC, claimed to have as one of its co-signatories "Lord Charles Guthrie". No such person exists.

I know of – indeed, I know – Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank. That is the title Charles Guthrie chose when he was ennobled after retiring as Chief of the Defence Staff. If there were another Charles Guthrie who happened to be a younger son of a Duke or Marquess, then he would have the courtesy title of Lord Charles Guthrie; but, as I say, there is no such person. I have checked with the College of Arms and it assures me of that.

Charles Guthrie, I'm sure, is innocent of the charge of impersonating a member of the hereditary peerage; I can't believe that he would be so crass as to sign himself "Lord Charles Guthrie". Alas – and here the BBC's critics do have a point – this distinction now seems to have been all but wiped out by common journalistic usage.

Recently Kirsty Wark, on the generally wonderful Newsnight, began an interview with the words: "So, Lord Chris Patten..." As if to guarantee that we could be in no doubt about Newsnight's whole-hearted commitment to ignorance in such matters, underneath the interviewee's head was the written legend "Lord Chris Patten".

As a matter of fact, Lord Patten of Barnes grinned amiably as he was so misnamed. Perhaps he even likes it, because it distinguishes him all the more from his contemporary, Lord Patten of Wincanton, who somewhat confusingly is another Roman Catholic Tory ex-cabinet minister elevated to the peerage at the request of John Major.

Unfortunately this attitude, the "Do you know who I am?" mentality, has now created a wholly new form of life peer. These people have deliberately invented a phoney title, which incorporates their first name into their peerage. I was alerted to this by the Letters Editor of The Independent, Guy Keleny, who says that he has received an increasing number of letters from peers trying this on. One he mentioned is a person signing herself as "Baroness Sarah Ludford", who, apparently, is aLiberal Democrat MEP for London.

Then there is Lord Bassam of Brighton, who has taken to describing himself as "Lord Steve Bassam". Guy Keleny, who is of a charitable disposition, thinks that it is a desire not to appear fuddy-duddy that causes these people to self-honour their first names. In that case, however, why do they wish to have such a very old-fashioned thing as a peerage in the first place? If Steve Bassam wished to remain Steve Bassam, and not to take his place on the red benches of the House of Lords, he would have found that a remarkably easy act of omission.

No, it's all about being "famous". The founder of the BBC, Lord Reith, once wrote a wonderful memo – or so it is alleged – which touched on this. Upon hearing someone described in a broadcast as "a famous lawyer" he wrote: "The word famous. If a person is famous, it is superfluous to point out the fact; if he is not, then it is a lie. The word is not to be used by the BBC."

If there is one pointless word which is now spreading like a virus without an antidote throughout all of British journalism (and not just the BBC) it is "famously": as in – and this is just one example out of thousands that could be given – "Robin Cook, who famously resigned over the invasion of Iraq".

Lord Reith's stricture about "famous" is absolutely applicable here, but there is something even more to object to in the word "famously". It seems to be the way in which the writer or broadcaster tries to say "Of course I know this and you know this, but there might be some idiots out there who need to be reminded of this fact".

At the risk of becoming part of Mr Bruton-Simmonds' campaign for linguistic enforcement; let "famously" follow "famous" into oblivion.