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New Words for Old

Good evening and greetings from my terrace.

Now the sun has gone down, and it is finally cool enough to sit here and to watch the boats making their way back to the port of Palma. It rained heavily this afternoon, a typical summer thunderstorm of twenty minutes, and for a moment the air was fresh.  Then half an hour later the terrace and the garden were dry once more and, apart from a few inches of water in the black dustbin that serves as my water butt, everything was just as it was before.

Over on the mainland, 8 hours from here by ship, the campaign for and against the independence of Catalonia continues, dividing towns, villages, families and friends. It is a question of deeply held feelings that have been passed down from generation to generation. The issue has finally surfaced like a volcano that has been bubbling away under the ground for a long time. Now arguments from both the head and the heart are bandied about with little concern for the basic difference between them, and there is much talking but little listening. But there were recently some words of wisdom from the Mayoress of Madrid, Manuela Carmena. She asked for a sensible discussion between the two sides and said, ‘We need to start using new words.’ How right she was.

Orwell in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ has said everything that needs to be said on the way in which politicians misuse words. He gave as an example the word ‘fascist’ and showed how it had lost any definite meaning and was used simply to criticise the other side. In Catalonia today the word ‘democracy’ is used by both sides, by those who are for independence and by those who are against it, as a label for their own cause. It is merely a banner for what they want to happen. The word democracy has been pulled this way and that like bubble gum until it is so distorted that now it means nothing at all.  The Catalan debate needs ‘new words’ as Manuela Carmena said.

Read Orwell’s essay for sensible advice on how to speak and write clearly.  In fact, if you want to write well, take Orwell´s style as your example.

How sickened Orwell would have been by the language coming from the US military in recent years, especially expressions such as ‘collateral damage’.  Luckily that phrase was ridiculed so often that it could never hide the sinister reality it tried to cover up.    

Wittgenstein said, ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world.’  Exactly. We cannot think without words, and so we must take good care of the words we use. We cannot debate, we cannot agree, and we cannot make any progress if we cling to words that have lost their meaning or degenerated into insults. These words have had their useful life and are so shapeless and battered that, like an old coat full of holes, they should be thrown out.

The magician in the story of Aladdin walked through the streets of Baghdad crying ‘New lamps for old’.  We could do with him today but dealing in words not lamps. The old words no longer do the job.  They have been overused and mistreated and no longer serve.

But, while with words, let’s look on the brighter side.

Just as they have a favourite pair of jeans or a favourite flavour of ice-cream, people have favourite words. 

Question: Who said, ‘the two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘summer afternoon’? 

Answer:  Henry James, in what must have been for him an unusually light moment. 

Which brings me to Miranda, who had a very successful comedy series on the BBC. In one episode her amorous boyfriend asked her to tell him her three favourite words. Did she comply with ‘I love you’? Not exactly.  She replied, ‘All Day Breakfast’. Well, we all have our priorities!

‘All day breakfast’ is clear.  We know what it means. But the other three words, ‘I love you’, the words Miranda did not use, are much trickier.

The word ‘love’ does too many jobs in English.  The Greeks had different words for different types of love. ‘Eros’ is one of them. And the English word ‘erotic’ makes clear what type of love that is. Then there is ‘agape’, a selfless concern for everyone including strangers. This is expressed by people who help the refugees coming across the Mediterranean hoping to land on a friendly European shore. Is there one? There is ‘philia’ which is loyalty to friends. This may be in your department at work or with members of your football team at the weekend.  There is ‘ludus’, which is a playful relaxed enjoyment as when on holiday with friends.

In English the word ‘love’ is overworked and therefore vague.  Which kind of love are we talking about? There is a joke about a priest giving advice to a young woman.  The priest said, ‘You must love your neighbour’. The woman replied, ‘Well yes, I do love my neighbour.  But he’s married.’ In Greek, I suppose, there would have been no joke at all.

The words of religion are important too. Gerald Priestland, who in the late 70s was the BBC Religious Affairs correspondent and a great writer for all those interested in the life of the spirit but unable to join any established faith. He suggested that instead of saying, ‘I believe in God’ we should say ‘I trust in God’. He adds, ‘You don’t believe in your father, but you trust in him.’ He continued, ‘Don’t say that ‘You must love other people’ but ‘You must care for other people’.’  The changes sound clearer. They refresh our understanding. The old phrases, repeated so often, have lost their force.

Meanwhile, over on the mainland in Catalonia, eight hours away in the big ferry that I can see leaving now, the debate continues. For the moment at least, I’m afraid that new words are rare and if any are used, few people listen to them, and what use is clear language if nobody listens to it?