GLOSSARY / A Utopian language of unsplittable hairs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PHILIP LARKIN didn't think much of going back to basics. In 1943 he wrote to Kingsley Amis: 'I have just closed the window because air was coming into the room that was colder than the air that was in the room already. There are drops of water falling down from the sky outside.' He was making fun of Basic English, a system devised by C K Ogden and I A Richards that aimed to create 'an auxiliary international language' by reducing the huge vocabulary of English to 850 simple words.

For Amis and Larkin the enterprise was entirely ridiculous, and bits of cod Basic continued to pop up in their letters ('I went to see a film men have made about a play written round a man called Henry the Fifth'). But for its inventors Basic was no joke - it was a Utopian1 scheme to improve global communication, the linguistic equivalent of Utility Furniture.

Basic was meant to stand for British American Scientific International Commercial but Ogden and Richards had obviously worked on the acronym2 to end up with a word that implied something irreducible and fundamental. Basic English was flavoured with that zeal for a planned economy and an engineered society which grew out of the Second World War, but it is also true that, notwithstanding its recent excursion into the headlines, the word 'basic' has waved a red flag as often as a blue one. Its appeal is that of the simplified life, whether found through language, religion or Marxism.

So while the 'er, basically' of Private Eye's Dave Spart is partly a verbal tic (and remember that Monty Python sketch about the Well Basically Society, members of which were unable to start a sentence without those words), it is also a little nod to Marxist theory, with its hierarchy of base and superstructure. Only by understanding the basics, a Marxist would suggest, will you have a true analysis of society.

The word offers similar comforts in philosophy. 'What I call a 'basic statement' or a 'basic proposition',' writes Karl Popper, 'is a statement which can serve as a premise in an empirical falsification, in brief a statement of singular fact.'

For Alfred Ayer, basic propositions are 'propositions which need not wait upon other propositions for the determination of their truth or falsehood'.

The search for the basics, then, is moral atomism, an attempt to find an unsplittable hair. But most sensible politicians realise that their world is governed by the paradoxes of quantum physics rather than the clean certainties of Newton. Singular facts in politics? Dream on, John.

Even that axiomatically uncontentious set of values - motherhood and apple pie - won't hold together neatly. Motherhood, well yes, but let's see the marriage certificate first and, by the way, I hope those aren't French apples, subsidised at British taxpayers' expense.

At heart 'back to basics' is not a conservative message (though its earliest citation as a phrase in the OED comes from its use by American education reformers who wanted to return to the three Rs). It is essentially a radical one, the reformer's dream of tearing down accumulated rubbish3 and rebuilding from solid foundations (the Khmer Rouge offered a peculiarly violent and literal interpretation of the project). I don't think any of this is quite what the Prime Minister had in mind when he settled on the phrase. In fact, I am not convinced he had anything particular in mind, apart from those fine double plosives, which you can beat like a bass drum at the party conference.

A complicated etymology may offer a simpler explanation. 'Basic' derives from the Greek basis, meaning that on which one steps or stands, a pedestal or a base. The OED nicely describes it as 'the bottom of any object when considered as its support or that on which it stands or rests', which might prompt the objection that the one thing John Major lacks is 'bottom'.

Maybe there is a Freudian confession in there; 'back to basics' is not so much a policy as an attempt by a struggling swimmer to find solid ground beneath his feet.

1 From the Greek ou, not, and topos, place.

2 From the Greek akros, tip, peak (hence Acropolis and acrobat) plus the suffix nym, for name.

3 From the Anglo-Norman rubbous. Perhaps from Old French robe, spoils.