Thursday, 28 November 2013

By The Way . . .

I once berated a young employee as follows:-

“If I ever catch you using that word again in this office I shall sack you. Sack you on the spot,” I said. “Sack you” I continued, “without notice, or the benefit of appeal to the Industrial Court. Bugger the consequences of such draconian behaviour - I don’t care. The pain of fines for alleged unfair dismissal will be far, far out-weighed by the satisfaction of having cast from our midst such a verbal and literary excrescence.”

Warming to my theme, as if I needed to, I pressed home the point, “I can think of no occasion or context, in this office, when this word could conceivably be appropriate. Not one.” She quailed under my impassioned onslaught and steely stare. 

Well actually no, she didn’t. 

She grinned and said something along the lines of – “Okay I got it,” or “Right,” or “Cool,” or some such, but her eyes and her body language were eloquently saying  - “Jeez Steve man – get . . . a . . . life!” Sometime later she amicably left our employment and moved on to better things, but I can guarantee that while I never caught her using the offensive word, at least in writing during office hours, she has since used it in her subsequent work places.

I can guarantee that because I hear it, and I see it continually on public notices, read it in newspaper articles and on bill boards. Even political statements contain it and I am sure that if I bothered to look it would also have infected law reports – I must ask my friends in the profession if this is so.

The offending word?

Painful though it is to hear the word, let alone speak it, or heaven forbid write it I suppose this diatribe would be toothless, not to say pointless without actually repeating the word. Here goes - at the risk of the earth yawning open under my feet and the lightening bolt of Lexicog the enraged God of Language striking me on the forehead and singeing my designer stubble . . .

Here it is, writ small -  Temporal!

Or to lessen the pain and frame it in the form of a cryptic crossword clue – “A spot mixed in part is not sacred (8)”

Oh alright then – it’s Temporal!

I have to admit that my pet hate is indeed the use of the word “temporal” where “temporary” is not only correct but is not open to some weird form of theistic or spiritual interpretation.  I realise however that any amount of crusading to recapture the true meaning of “temporal” is a non- starter. Once I see newspaper advertisements warning of Temporal Road Diversions, or notices on the door of the Water Services Corporation satellite offices declaring Temporal Closure for Refurbishment I have to throw in the towel and admit that here is one word the misuse of which is permanent and, well frankly, not temporal.

What I don’t understand is how this particular error has crept into the vernacular, and cloak it in any way you like – it is an error! Somewhere, sometime, some years ago  someone made a lexicographical mistake which far from being corrected has somehow entered the language, to the extent that teachers are teaching the word “temporal”, the word appears in exam papers (yes really!), administrators, lawyers and politicians are using it and the media are reporting with it.

Okay – I concede that there is a gossamer thread connecting temporary, via time to temporal, but god knows it is a very thin thread. The nuanced time element in “temporal” has great and important subtleties that direct one towards the ties and tensions between the worldly and the spiritual. Time in a temporal context is existential, something grand and central; but in a temporary context it is fleeting and vapid.

I have a favourite in the misuse of borrow and lend, and here I have to admit to such a level of self mockery that I find myself forgetting which is correct. As I jocularly request that someone “borrow” me a book I find myself wondering if I am in fact correct after all. Oddly enough this juxtaposition really does not worry me –borrow and lend are after all, to all intents and purposes synonymous and their correct usages hinge only on the relationships between the Borrower and the Lendee, or is it the Lendor and the Borrowee, or perhaps the Borrowee and Lendee? Whatever - the point being that no other concept is obfuscated or interfered with.

Another mystery that I cannot unravel is the use of the phrase “by the way”. In traditional usage – as I remember it from the country of my birth – it is an idiom that adds additional information to a conversation (my car is in the garage and as a temporal arrangement I am driving a hire car which by the way is very economical to run), or can be used to open a new strand or subject during a conversation (By the way do you still have that book I borrowed to you about Keeping Cats?).

What has happened here in Swaziland though is that the phrase has taken on a new life - a sort of verbal open-palmed smack up the forehead that exclaims “of course I should have remembered . . . such and such”! But again, as with “borrow” and “lend”, such usage does not detract from the interjectory or additive usage I was brought up on.

However hard I try I do feel that my attempts to bring some sense of decorum to the use of English – the language of Shakespeare; the mellifluous cadences of Byron, Shelly, Becket, Heaney  and Thomas;  the Mother Tongue of glorious colonialism - that English is no longer said as she ought to be spoke. Don’t “these people” realise the importance of English as she is spoke?

Well of course “they” don’t, because like any live and dynamic language our English changes and adapts and what is actually important is that we can converse at a common level of understanding. Language is after all an expression of our sentience. It is undergoing continual change as a response to whatever environmental pressures abound. This language species is subject to continual lexicographical evolution. As an adaptive strategy the changes that are occurring are working, because we continue to converse and understand each other. The trick perhaps for us language fascists is to lighten up, get a life and luxuriate in the changes that are occurring and celebrate the nuances created by such changes.

And I will continue to beat my own revolutionary path by splitting my infinitives and starting sentences with “and” and “but”. Because lets face it without language evolution we could all be speaking Shakespearean English in the cadences of the English midlands and having to contend with his god-awful speling.

I will however still summarily sack anyone in my office that has the temerity to use the word “temporal” in any context . . .
Yorick, a closet language subversive, researching for
interesting synonyms . . .

1 comment:

  1. Oh ye oh ye oh ye! Have at the vagabonds. Dastardly scoundrels to thus misuse, abuse and assault a language that has not one but many many menny ways of saying exactly what one wishes. As an EFL teacher, I am assailed daily with hideous misutterances that make me wince and squirm. And I too have said things that leave me baffled and confused. I have stopped using short forms, I no longer concern myself with word order and much of what I say sounds as if it has been translated from something else. Oh woe! I shall seek refuge in blog comments to flex my weak and feeble language mussels/muscles/muscels....huh?


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