The way he said 'drowning' made me shudder

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
LORD Reith was an old friend and quaffing-partner of mine. A stern yet scrupulously fair man, he had a very merry side to him. This is still not properly recognised by his left-leaning opponents. When in my company, for instance, he once drew himself up to his full height and announced that he was in possession of a Knock-Knock joke.

"This is marvellous news!" I said, encouragingly. I had never heard the fellow tell a joke before.

"Knock knock," he began.

"Who's there?" I responded.

"Eh?" he said.

"Who's there?"


"You said, 'Knock knock', so I said, 'Who's there?' " I explained. "So traditionally you should now tell me who's there."

With a baffled expression, Reith opened the door. He peered around before shutting the door with a bang. "No one at all. Is there any earthly reason why there should be?"

In many ways, it was to his undying credit that Lord Reith's robust sense of humour did not stretch into every nook and cranny of public life. And I can say without fear of contradiction that the great man would have found nothing whatsoever to laugh about in the Reith Lectures that are currently being broadcast under his name.

They are being presented by a bird of the unfeathered variety with an interest in English As She Is Spoke. The lady in question is called Professor Jean Aitchison - or Haitchison (I jest!) - and she rejoices in the title of Rupert Murdoch Professor of Barney and Lip at the University of Toffee- Nose (I jest again!!).

When it comes to English, I have always taken my lead from the Queen Mother. Her Royal Highness is the foremost practitioner of our island tongue. To be present when she speaks is to witness the English language at its very peak. To take just one instance, throughout the time I have known that most gracious lady, I have never once heard her employ the expression "Tell im a dog carn't lose and e's darn the bookie wivva buncha fivers" and however upset that most gracious of ladies might grow at the behaviour of a courtier, she would never for one moment voice the phrase, "e needs sortin' aht, 'e do".

So you may imagine my shock upon hearing Professor Haitch (!) suggesting, under the good offices of Lord Reith, that the aforementioned duet of slovenly sentences somehow shows that the English language is in the very rudest of health. Any reasonable person can see that they constitute the most vulgar mixture of slang and cliche - so put that in your pipe and smoke it, Prof Haitch.

Might I conclude with an anecdote that demonstrates conclusively the decline of spoken English? Taking my morning constitutional around the frozen village pond last week, I happened to hear a distant cry.

"Elp! Elp, Ah'm drarnin!" Looking over in the direction of the hullabaloo, I espied a fair amount of splashing from an area of broken ice.

I was shocked and startled. Even here, in our little corner of rural England, that perfectly good little English word "help" was being enunciated without the inclusion of its vital first letter; "I" was being pronounced as "Ah"; and "drowning" had somehow become "drarnin".

With dreadful splashing gradually subsiding, I had just begun to get over the shock of these grotesque mispronunciations, when a second fellow ran up, panic written all over his grubby face. "Ere, mister!" he shouted. "The guy's not got no time left - 'e's going to quickly go under if ye don't do summat!"

I tried to suppress a shudder. "If 'the guy' as you insist on calling him in that transatlantic slang of yours has indeed 'not got no time left', then let us rejoice in your double negative, for it means he has plenty of time left!" I jested. "And I sincerely trust he is not destined 'to quickly go under', for I should so hate him to be the unfortunate victim of a split infinitive! And what, pray, is 'summat'? Does it follow on from autumnat, winterat and springat, perchance?!"

It is as well to temper one's love of the language with a sprinkling of humour, methinks. I trust my jocular approach will make my lesson in correct English all the more memorable to the grubby-faced fellow in years to come. Alas, it will be of little use to his "mate", who exclaimed "Waaagghh" - a word nowhere to be found in my OED - before disappearing below the surface for ever.