Why do academic professionals masquerade as tongue-tied dullards? In an article a decade ago Tony Thorne demanded a return to donnish wit.


I’ve more than once complained to colleagues that, in the eighteen or so years since I returned to higher education, I have yet to come across an example of ‘high-table wit’. Indeed I’m hard put to recall a single on-campus laugh, let alone a bon mot or jeu d’esprit, in all that time. Colleagues cheerfully riposted that even if there were a High Table, I would be unlikely to be seated at it, and anyway, in a world constrained by critical theory, funding shortfalls and dignity-at-work procedures, what is there to be witty about?

We are hobbled by the mateyness of the tutorial, the robotspeak of the audit culture, not to mention the overemphasis, in Russell Group institutions at least, on mute research, not teaching, as the noblest calling. Levity, in HE, is verboten.

Sophisticated usages, complicated syntax are seen as threats to equal opportunities for the inarticulate. Because we have come to realise that language can disempower, it doesn’t follow that we should muzzle ourselves: if ‘rhetoric’ is widely distrusted as flim-flam and trickery, it doesn’t mean that we should forget its huge (re-)empowering potential.

During one exchange not so long ago a student accused me of having swallowed a dictionary. I not-very-wittily replied that it was probably the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English which I helped edit, but the point is that he was astonished that I dared to strain for eloquence. Many more students have complained to me of the uninspiring delivery of lectures, the numbing aridity of powerpoint-dependent presentations: why, they ask, are their teachers so desperately embracing a geek demotic?

In 1916 the leading literary scholar and writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch upbraided those he termed ‘scientific men’, the technocrats of his day, for undervaluing refinement in language, remarking that ‘the sharper the chisel, the more ice it is likely to cut.’ To borrow his (slightly mixed) metaphor, it’s a point well made, and still to the point.

Of course old-style ‘high-table wit’ is an unsustainable cliché, part of a mythology of the academy which is cultivated mainly by those outside it. Who would wish to revive the amusing speech impairments of the poor Reverend Spooner or the effete waspishness of Warden John Sparrow?

The very idea of donnishness – the mystique of the virtuoso lecturer, the unworldly worldliness of the professoriate – is an anachronism, and the tradition of academic witticisms seems to have expired sometime in the 1960s, a decade in which, in Joseph Losey’s film Accident, the acerbic don (Dirk Bogarde) still lived in a sprawling rectory, drove a new Jaguar, and knew all about port.

And yet, and yet… the notion nags at me. I’m really arguing for the sense of self-worth that makes indulgence in humour and the bravura use of language possible, and I guess I’m targeting VCs, VPs as well as practitioners in the humanities, whose rhetorical skills should provide models for their students. Now that the sermon and the debating society are moribund, who else is to take the lead? George Galloway? Stephen Fry? On their own??

Quips around the high table rarely went beyond their immediate audience, but we should be thinking more ambitiously, of a discourse style that can make its user heard above the soundbites and the earnest browbeatings of public debate and restore the right of university teachers to influence opinion on a wider scale

It could be said that this already happens in terms of science and technology, whose public and social influence is unarguable, and there are signs at least that other academic voices are being raised, in the interdisciplinary public debates taking place in London right now for instance, where arts and social science specialists contend with luminaries from the second and third estates.

Let’s pray not just for piety and conviction in those debates, but for repartee and badinage, because the other key component of wit is a sense of humour. Not gallows humour, born of desperation, but what Aristotle defined as ‘cultured insolence’, the byproduct of quick thinking and a keen combativeness; qualities, along with verbal facility, that seem to me to be essential for the survival of a still undervalued and self-effacing academy. Montaigne said wit was a dangerous weapon; in fact it’s not so much the equivalent of Sir Arthur’s little ice-pick as our own sector’s Weapon of Mass Seduction. And it’s time we deployed it.


A version of this article appeared in the Times Higher in September 2006



The Fourth Edition of Tony Thorne’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang was published by Bloomsbury in 2014. This light piece introduces some of the themes featured in the new edition.

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 Slang is by definition the most disreputable aspect of our language, but at the same time the most inventive and most colourful, deriving its power from its novelty and revelling in disapproval. Traditionally associated with the enclosed communities of the prison, the army barracks, the factory floor and the older public schools, more recently slang has escaped its boundaries and is running wild.

There are signs everywhere that ordinary people are claiming ownership of language, no longer abiding by the conventions of standard English, but inventing or borrowing their own exotic expressions to add humour, spice and shock-value to conversations. In a society reflecting what academics call ‘superdiversity’, where social classes, ethnicities and regional loyalties are all mixed up, we are all, even traditionally monoglot Brits, in danger of becoming multilingual.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have a teen in the house will know that today’s yoof prefer to communicate in a foreign tongue. Or rather a number of different private languages: there’s the gushing over-dramatising favoured by younger females, whereby slightly inconvenienced translates as ‘totes devz’ (from ‘totally devastated’), moderately interesting is ‘amazeballs’ and really rather good is ‘like, just the nipples.’ Other things the young ones say (and write) are not words at all, just noises: ‘nim-nim-nim’ mocks the boring background sound of adult conversation, ‘meh’ is a verbal shrug of indifference, ‘woop-woop’ a cry of joy.

And then there are the hundreds of abbreviations, used typically for communicating in social media and also creeping, alarmingly, into the classroom. YOLO – ‘you only live once’ was last year’s most irritating slogan, LOL has mutated into LMAO – ‘laughing my ass off’ and TL:DR ‘too long, didn’t read’ into TB: DL, ‘too boring, didn’t listen.’ Abbreviations are spoken, too: when asked to tidy the bedroom, the defiant retort ‘ceebs!’ is a version of ‘CBA’ –‘can’t be arsed.’

The older generation is no longer immune, as postings on social media sites testify. On the Mumsnet website shorthand terms like ‘boyf’, ‘hubz’ and ‘soz’ for sorry are exchanged, while Twitter users in particular vie with one another to coin the most picturesque insults, ‘twatbadger’, ‘arsebiscuit’ and ‘fudgenugget’ being some of the more printable examples. Linguists have only recently uncovered a whole new category of informal speech consisting of the nicknames, in-jokes and witticisms used inside the home. Known as family slang or ‘kitchen-table lingo’ it injects a note of silliness into the domestic routine and names things that otherwise go unnamed. Examples are the dozens of words (‘blabber’, ‘zapper’, ‘melly’, ‘dawicki’) for the TV remote control, ‘trunklements’ meaning grandad’s personal possessions or bits and pieces and ‘Blenkinsop’, the sliding plastic tab on a self-sealing freezer bag.

‘Lemon meringue’ or rhyming slang, whose death has often been announced, is actually still around, though now in the mouths of non-Cockneys, students, journalists and in the home, too where you dry yourself with a ‘Simon (Cowell)’ before putting on your ‘Baracks (Obamas)’.

For linguists the new sound of the street which they call ‘multiethnic urban vernacular’ or MLE (multiethnic London English), and others deride as ‘Jafaican’ or ‘ghetto-speak,’ is an interesting and important phenomenon. Its edgy vocabulary; ‘bare’ (lots), ‘blad’ (friend), ‘choong’ (attractive), ‘merk’ (kill or humiliate), ‘inna’ (nosey or intrusive) may not survive into middle age, but its rhythm and accent show signs of influencing mainstream English.

Of course slang’s traditional users haven’t abandoned it. Criminals still need a secret code (‘stralley’ is a firearm, the police are ‘stabz’) with which to keep the outside world at bay; the police, the army, taxi-drivers, market traders, plumbers, techies, gamers and fashionistas, in fact any group with a special interest, will develop a set of words and phrases with which to baffle outsiders and admit insiders to the group. What has changed is that this kind of language is no longer clandestine, no longer automatically avoided or excluded by the media or shunned by ‘respectable’ people, even if conservatives lament its effect on literacy and traditionalists are, quite understandably, unsettled by it. Irreverent, silly, sometimes disturbing, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ is, as one linguist called it, ‘the people’s poetry’ (technically it operates just like poetry or literature but is more flexible and creative than either) and at the same time, serves important functions in our day-to-day interactions. It now belongs to everyone and anyone and it’s not going to go away.




Adorkable meaning: clumsy but cute. The blend of ‘adorable’ and ‘dorky’ is currently a term of affection and admiration among teenagers.


BONGO meaning: a lazy, inert colleague. In UK police slang the term uses the initials of ‘books on, never goes out.’


Fatboy Slim meaning: the gym. ‘I’m off down the Fatboy,’ says hubz. ‘Don’t fall on your Mylene (Klass)’ says his better half.


Jinnelz meaning: a swindler or fraud. This exotic-looking word is originally from Caribbean speech where it referred to a ladies-man or conman who was overly ‘congenial.’


Stabby meaning: irritated to the point of violence. A favourite of harassed housewives and mothers, seen increasingly on Mumsnet.


Wasteman meaning: a worthless individual. This all-purpose criticism or insult, based on the notion of ‘a waste of time/space’, is used as a taunt by street-gang members as well as schoolkids.





A version of this article appeared on the Sunday Times website in March 2014




Here’s an article, written for British and American professionals, that discusses the question of jargon…

Learning a new language can mean something different in today’s world of work.


Image result for corporate life

 ‘We’ve got to monetise our visibility and maximise brand awareness’ says the boss. ‘I’ll get across it ASAP and keep an eye on collateral,’ responds the loyal subordinate with one eye on promotion and the other, if this is physically possible, on their back. Meanwhile the CEO announces that the organisation is ‘increasing its leveraging of intangibles and disruptive technologies to cope with sector turbulence’ and the shareholders nod sagely, whether they have understood what he’s talking about or not. English may be the international language but there’s another, more powerful and all-pervasive language at work here – a pressing reason for us to become bilingual or risk being left behind as the corporate and professional worlds evolve. One name for this code is BS. No – not that – it stands for Business-Speak, known also as office jargon, management-speak, buzzwords and biz-words, even sometimes in progressive circles as ‘digital discourse.’

Whatever you call it, biz-speak gets a bad press. Lucy Kellaway’s columns in the Financial Times have been parodying it for a decade, the UK’s Plain English Campaign regularly denounces it and not long ago MPs waded into the debate, chastising their civil servants for using phrases like ‘challenging growth trajectories’ and ‘driving up quality’. The Local Government Association even tried to ban a long list of terms including the awful ‘coterminous engagement’ and ‘predictors of beaconicity’, but also the – to my mind – quite innocent ‘synergy’, ‘benchmark’ and ‘initiative’. At the same time a raft of surveys by pollsters, HR agencies and academics have canvassed workers’ grievances and identified the use of jargon by bosses as the number one irritant. These studies revealed that junior executives and office workers in particular felt intimidated and excluded by managers’ obscure and pretentious language, suspecting, too, that this is often employed to conceal incompetence, or disguise unpalatable truths.

But despite all the surveys I’m not at all sure that we should automatically disapprove of jargon. When speakers strive to find new ways of describing genuinely new ideas, and when they play creatively with the possibilities of the language, they enrich our vocabulary, expand our capacity to express ourselves; to use a controversial word they empower us. As for technical terms – learn them! If your colleagues are referencing ‘portals’, ‘silos’, ‘inflows’, you ought to know what they are. New processes and new ways of consuming require new terminology and always have done. Key finance concepts like ‘sub-prime’ and ‘QE’ sound offputting, but try explaining them in different words in less than ten minutes; ‘onshoring’ is the neatest way of explaining that you have had to reverse your ‘outsourcing’ and ‘offshoring.’ BS can also inject a little drama and humour into the working day, so the slight recovery after a crash is better described as a ‘dead cat bounce’, taking a brave and unpopular decision is ‘shooting the puppy’, a pleasing upward curve is a ‘J-Lo’, the consultant you had to engage is a ‘hired gun’ or a ‘killer bee’.

Image result for corporate life

If you do decide to embrace this new lingo there are some crucial points to remember. Where BS is concerned the cardinal sins are:

  • Using too much of it in one conversation: unfamiliar terms are processed more slowly by the listener’s brain, so don’t overload them with ‘let’s move from a hub-and-spoke to a many-to-many peered distribution model.’
  • Using it to avoid straight-speaking: you won’t be popular if you substitute ‘transitioned’ for kicked out, ‘lateralled’ for moved sideways, ‘backfilled’ for replaced or, if you’re a government, ‘deficit levy’ for tax. And she’s a receptionist, by the way, not a ‘data hub facilitator.’
  • Not understanding what you are saying: a new way of saying all-inclusive is the skiing term ‘across the piste’, but some hapless professionals trying to impress are coming out with with ‘across the piece,’ one or two, excruciatingly, with ‘across the beast.’
  • Relying on clichés: some expressions have simply been done to death, with ‘going forward’, ‘reaching out’ and ‘thinking outside the box’ among the worst offenders.
  • Using it in completely the wrong setting: Don’t say ‘we’re thinking of co-curating our downtime and sourcing a leisure solution’, say ‘we’re planning to book a holiday’, and don’t ‘recalibrate the work-life balance’, just ‘relax.’

Critics need to realise that specialist language isn’t just about naming and describing, it’s about credibility, about bonding and belonging, about brevity and freshness, as much as about bamboozling or bluster. Knowing how to deploy (I like that word) this vocabulary marks you out as a member of a team or a community sharing common professional aims. OK, if I see ‘deliverables’ or ‘ownership’ or hear ‘alignment’ one more time, I’ll probably scream – but come on, let’s get buy-in from all stakeholders, embed a culture of innovation and maximise linguistic functionality.  Or to put it more brutally, if you don’t like the heat, stay out of the kitchen.


Twitter: @tonythorne007

Here are some links to articles referring to business jargon:













Slang, Jargon, Cultural History…

IMG_1609 (1) (800x628)I have been writing, teaching and broadcasting about new language and linguistic and cultural change for three decades. I have compiled dictionaries and written cultural histories and biographies and founded The Slang and New Language Archive at King’s College London, a resource for scholars, the media and language enthusiasts which I still  curate today.

I want to use this new site to publish updates in the form of comments, articles, podcasts and links, but also to share archived content from the past in the hope that it is still of interest (and in the knowledge that language-and-culture controversies don’t date as quickly as some people think).

I’m always collecting new terms, expressions and usages, but, unlike some linguists and many lexicographers I’m not interested only in the form and function of words. I want also to explore the emotional, psychological and social effects of language and the feelings and motives of those who use it.

Please do contact me to donate new words and ideas, to ask for information or to comment, criticise or suggest new areas to investigate. I’m also a consultant for trademarking, brand-names, the language of advertising and language-related legal matters.