I’ve not had a gripe about words and their usage for some time. However, last night an old irritation re-emerged as I was preparing dinner.
I hate colloquial abbreviations that turn a perfectly serviceable – and sometimes quite beautiful – word or phrase into a much more humdrum, not to say unintelligent, expression. This is an irk (I’ve just made a noun of that!) that goes way back into my childhood. I grew up in an era when the relative affluence of the 1960s was taking consumerism to new levels and my mother frequently sent me on errands to our local shop, which (even then) belonged to Spar. As part of the independent retailer drive against the supermarket chains which, even in towns like Spalding, were just beginning to take hold (my Uncle David, who also kept a shop and didn’t belong to any kind of co-operative, was always railing against them), the shop usually displayed a few items marked ‘special offer’. As a nine-year-old or thereabouts (I admit that I was probably an insufferable little prig!), I remember the strong sense of semantic outrage that I felt on the first occasion that I heard the shopkeeper describe one of these as ‘on offer’. Now, of course, this is such a familiar term that ‘special offer’ has almost disappeared from usage; many retailers even use the term ‘offer’ without a preposition.
Since then, many similar slimmed-down inventions have offended my ear. The term ‘Brussels sprouts’ is a case in point. My father frequently abbreviated this to ‘Brussels’, which I felt gave the vegetable, although it provided good, solid English fare, a hint of continental exoticism. I was not so delighted when I came to live in Yorkshire and found that the locals always call them ‘sprouts’ – a less attractive word I could hardly conceive of!
Then there were ‘high heels’, those potent rites of passage into womanhood that girls aspired to and were once not allowed to wear until well into their teens. I’m not quite sure when this happened – possibly longer ago than I realise – but I note that now they are always called ‘heels’. Ugh! If you’d used this word to my grandmother, who was not particularly enamoured of the male sex, she would immediately have understood that you were referring to a couple of less-than-satisfactory men, not a pair of glamorous shoes.
And, while we’re on the subject, what about ‘mains’, as in ‘main course’? It’s another one that’s crept up on me. When was the second word dropped? Did restaurants not have enough space on menus and billboards to write the whole phrase? It sounds like an apology for a waterworks.
And now – wait for it! – as I discovered yesterday evening, Sainsbury’s is describing its garlic ciabatta bread as ‘a classic and Italian side’. A classic and Italian side of what? Of course, I know that it refers to ‘side dish’, or, as the Americans would say, something to be presented or eaten ‘on the side’. But why not say so? Why mangle the language in this way and diminish both the magic of the words and their sense?
Perhaps I’ve now become an insufferable much older prig… or perhaps I have a point.