One of the myriad stories about Winston Churchill tells of a young civil servant who, having received a memo from the great man, ventured to correct a sentence and to scribble in the margin, ‘It is wrong to end a sentence with a a preposition;’ to which Churchill replied, ‘This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’
As it happens, in Anglo Saxon a preposition is a perfectly good word to end a sentence with. But I mention the story only because I have a confession to make. I, too, am a pedant: the sort of person who is more distinguished by attention to formal scholastic rules than by practical common sense (not, of course, a necessary prerequisite for a theologian).
What is it that brought me face to face with this trait of my own character? In a word, two words: data and media, both directly imported to English from Latin; and both plural. Yet throughout the pandemic I’ve had to endure Oxbridge educated politicians, scientists and journalists using such expressions as ‘the data says’ and ‘the media reports.’ I’m not saying that it drives me nuts. My fear is that it drives me nuts only because I am nuts.
The word ‘data’ literally means ‘the givens;’ the facts we have to take for granted when, or if, we ever start thinking. It’s not just one fact, but a great number of facts about, for example the coronavirus, including what biologists tell us, what epidemiologists tell us, what immunologists tell us and what the Great Lady of Holyrood tells us. Please don’t tell me that all these facts ‘tells’ us something. It’s enough to make a man organise a demo.
But even worse is the invariable use of the word ‘media,’ especially by the media. It might, indeed, be no bad thing if we had only one medium of communication. In reality we have thousands of them: the press, radio, television, the internet, and the social media, each with its own subdivisions and very, very far from speaking with one voice. The ‘National’ and the ‘Daily Mail’ and the ‘Scottish Field’ are all media, but they can’t be lumped together and referred to as ‘it.’ If we must drop the Latin form, and clothe these words in English dress, I could live with ‘the mediums’ of communication, just as I could with ‘referendums’. But, ‘The media says,’ is something up with which I will not put, ’cos I don’t want the Stornoway Gazette placed in the same boat as the CalMac Newsletter.
Yet my pedantry doesn’t prevent me using the mediums. Indeed, my use of them is itself pedantic: quite ridiculous, even. When I get up of a morning, I have to ask the phone whether I’m feeling warm or cold, otherwise I wouldn’t know. I hope future historians will cherish this vital datum.
But the really interesting datum is that English has never been afraid to borrow from other languages. The word, pandemic, is Greek; beef, mutton and pork are French; angst is German; piano is Italian; ranch and macho are Spanish, caravan and sofa are Arabic, and banana is from the Congo.
And Gaelic, too, was happy to borrow, readily welcoming such words as car, van, bus, plane, motor-bike, tractor and ferry; phone, wireless and television; grant, loan and subsidy; doctor, vet and teacher; bath and tap. Now, however, there are signs that the trend is being resisted, as purists cast about to discover or invent a ‘real’ Gaelic’ word for everything. Time was when fridge, freezer, and shower fitted comfortably into Gaelic conversation. Now I have to have to translate fuaradair back into English before I guess it means fridge. Why put us to the bother; and why can’t fras be left where it belongs (in the weather forecast, not in the bathroom)?
Then there are words that sound like agallan and aithisg. The meadhanan love them (notice the perceptive Gaelic use of the plural), but it’s hard to see what gaps in the native speaker’s vocabulary they’re supposed to fill; and even harder to know what the native speaker makes of them.
But it’s when it comes to the months of the year that I’m lost: completely lost. Away back in the 1940s, native speakers spoke of ‘September 1938’ or ‘January 1919,’ and I instantly knew what they meant. Now the purists put such things in Gaelic and I cannot tell my March from my May, or my July from my August. That may be a disgrace (though not as big a disgrace as not knowing the Gaelic for Effectual Calling), but it is the reality, and there is no point in ridding the language of loan-words if the result is that native speakers can no longer follow the Gaelic News.
That news, of course, is the same as we’d hear on Radio Four, Sky News or ITV, and for the time being it’s all about another pedant: a man who lives on Downing Street, London, and is obsessed with the question, When is a party not a party? He has already eliminated the idea that wine maketh a party and is now close to establishing that the presence of one’s fiancée maketh a work-event. But he also has a second job: reassuring the public that, thanks to his magnificent achievement in putting an end to lockdown, we can now look forward to a glorious new future as the strongest economy in the G7.
The meadhanan, to their credit, are telling a different story. In the next few months we face a rise in the cost of living that will hit the ordinary people of Britain like a tsunami: rises in Income Tax, National Insurance, and Council Tax, and in the cost of food, clothes, petrol, gas and electricity; and a Scotland so much under the heel of the Greens that people who own elderly diesel cars will have to sell them for peanuts and replace them with expensive petrol ones; the good people of freezing Braemar will have to pull out their open fireplaces and replace them with electric ones that don’t work when it freezes; and anyone who is seen cutting peats on the Barvas Moor will be reported to the police.
These are the real data, and thanks to the media (all of them) for letting us know.
This article first appeared in the Stornoway Gazette 27th January 2022