17 MARCH 2007, Page 27

Mind your language

I wonder how much of our hatred of certain words and phrases is really a hatred of people. My husband, no mean hater, is given to self-defeating outbursts in response to some triggers. I’ve known him slam down the telephone when the person at the other end says, ‘Bear with me,’ even though he has waited ages to get through in the first place.

I was pondering such hatred during the recent flash-flood of remarks about language on the Letters page of the Daily Telegraph. Many readers of that newspaper seem to hate the sinner more than the linguistic sin. So, some people reach for their revolvers every time they hear someone say haitch, instead of aitch.

It is, to be sure, a strange error, perhaps the result of hypercorrection (like saying, ‘between you and I’ instead of the correct ‘between you and me’). The name of the letter aitch, unlike that of many letters, does not begin with the letter it denotes. Most letters hardly seem to have a name at all, and we end up writing ‘mind your p’s and q’s’. But I can’t help thinking that the hatred of the erroneous form haitch is really a hatred of the sort of people who sprinkle aspirates in the hope that some will stick in the right places. You’d have thought that such hatred would have gone out with Punch’s 19th-century mockery of ’arry.

Similarly, since in shops we are given no service and precious little courtesy, a few triggers sharpen ire against shop assistants. ‘No worries’, ‘No problem’, and ‘Cheers, mate’ have a breezy antipodean air to them which can be all the more grating when the assistant has been unhelpful and unaware of his deficiencies. And when he has finished, he says ‘There you go’, as if he had produced a rabbit from a hat.

Older people never like the slang of the young, but one language hatred heard among the under-thirties is not verbal at all, but the rising intonation at the ends of sentences that make statements sound like questions. So if I ask a friend of Veronica’s what she is doing, she replies, ‘I’m studying marine biology in Wales,’ with an intonation that would ordinarily indicate a guess that she expects me to verify.

That prosodic feature is more difficult to combat than the verbal chamber of horrors of iconic, inappropriate, stakeholder, connectivity, awesome, ground-breaking, trademark, innovative, and suchlike spawn of enfeebled minds. There you go, as the shopgirl would say, it’s the minds you hate, not the words.

Dot Wordsworth