Taken aback by a memo from a stickler and his minions

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The Independent Online
AMOST curious memo has been leaked to me, which purports to have been written by John Selwyn Gummer, and which seems to be a directive to his minions at the environment secretariat. It is marked 'Top Secret Discussion Document', and no wonder, for in it he proposes nothing less than a clean-up campaign for the English language.

Before laying out his reasons for this extraordinary move, the memo dwells briefly on his days as agricultural supremo. When he was interpreting directives from Brussels, he says, he often went further than Brussels wanted him to go to make sure he got things right. 'I may not have known much about farming,' he says, 'but I jolly well knew about getting orders issued so that people knew exactly where they stood, and what the punishments were and how many Hail Marys they would have to say if they transgressed. So to speak.'

There is nobody with so much zeal as a convert, they say, and certainly John Selwyn Gummer went about the task of closing down Britain's slaughterhouses with all the enthusiasm of a messiah casting out money-changers. Even people in Brussels, it is said, were taken aback by his zeal. But this latest broadside from Mr Gummer will have more than just the bureaucrats shaking their heads. Here is what he says:

'As is well known, the English language has a much larger vocabulary than most of its European counterparts. There are various historical reasons for this, such as its rich heritage of Celtic, Saxon and Norman origins, but the unfortunate consequence is that our lexical richness has led to much jealousy abroad and, more important, inconvenience at home. With so many alternative words and expressions to choose from, it makes translation much harder and computing much more time- wasting.

'I therefore propose to implement a programme under which all unnecessary words will be weeded out. Although a great many words in English have a vital or decorative function, there are a great many more that serve no purpose at all except to clutter up sentences, and I wish to make a start by banning these.

'For a start, there are many words that are used in only one expression and have no flexibility. The word 'stickler', for example. We know what it means to say: 'He is a stickler for accuracy', but does anyone actually know what a stickler is or how you stickle? No, it is just a fossilised piece of language, useless and inflexible. I propose to outlaw the word 'stickler'. It does, as a matter of fact, mean an umpire. I did not know that until I looked it up, or until I got a minion to look it up, and I do not think you did, either.

'Incidentally, I have just looked up the word 'minion' and I find it comes from the French word 'mignon', meaning 'darling' or 'sweety', and I am disposed to eliminate this word as well.

'The verb 'wax' is also one that strikes me as otiose and surplus to requirements. It is merely an old word meaning to grow, for which we already have a perfectly good word, viz 'grow'. It survives only in such tired old hackneyed expressions as 'to wax lyrical' or 'to wax eloquent', and is part of that tiresome British tendency to think that slightly archaic phraseology is comic and droll, as when people in pubs call the landlord 'mine host' and the building 'an hostelry'. I think 'wane' can safely go as well.

'While on the subject of archaic words, I am minded to eliminate from usage all those Anglo- Saxon survivals that begin with an 'a', such as ablaze, aback, afoot, agape and so on. Can we really go around in the late 20th century saying that the game is afoot or that I was taken aback? I think not.

'One of the worst offenders in this field is, oddly enough, British Rail, which tends to use a whole sheaf of words that have died out elsewhere. I am thinking of words such as 'alight', in the expression 'when you alight at the next station stop', and 'tender', as in 'please tender the exact fare'. I also question the tendency of BR to create new meaningless expressions such as 'station stop' and to call almost every train it runs a 'shuttle'.

'I append a suggested list of 20,000 words that are candidates for weeding out and would like to have your thoughts on the subject. You may not think I am being serious. To anyone who thinks that, may I remind them that I recently took the extreme step of weeding out what seemed to me to be an unnecessary part of my own name and discarding the Selwyn.

'Yours, John Gummer'

Although some of what he says makes sense, I find the drift of the whole thing a little alarming. Unless, of course, the document is a hoax, and I have been hoodwinked. If, that is, John Gummer doesn't mind me using a word like hoodwinked . . .