DE-CODING SUPER SATURDAY’S BREXIT MOMENT

Today, we are told, is ‘Super Saturday’: not the last Saturday before Christmas, a bumper time for retailers, but an extraordinary weekend sitting of the UK parliament, only the third since the outbreak of World War 2 and this time to debate what one commentator has risked dubbing the ‘Brexit Moment’. Connoisseurs of new and exotic language can add to Super Saturday and Brexit Moment a pair of novel expressions trending in the same context: ‘greased piglet’ was the epithet bestowed by former PM David Cameron on his successor, explaining  that ‘the thing about the greased piglet is that he manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail.’ The piglet himself appealed this morning for our ‘better angels’ to heal divisions (and do his bidding), a slightly puzzling evocation of Abraham Lincoln’s ringing words: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’

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To accompany this morning’s unfolding developments RTE Radio asked me to record a commentary on these and other language innovations for their Irish listeners, and this is what I said…

https://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/html5/#/radio1/21639391

A slightly longer version of the script…

In struggling to keep abreast of the momentous events, the dramatic political developments generated recently by populism on both sides of the Atlantic, we have all of us  had to contend, too, with a rising tide of new language – exotic and unfamiliar new terms, old terms repurposed and weaponised, slang, jargon, catchphrases and slogans coming at us on a scale and at a speed not seen before in my lifetime.

I have been collecting the language of Trumpism, of Brexit and of the new alignments in politics, society and the media. I’m doing this because, as a linguist and a dictionary-maker it’s my responsibility not only to record but to make sense of new language, not only looking at its simple definitions but at its deeper, sometimes hidden implications and the hidden agendas and real intentions of the people who are using it.

I’m compiling what I call a glossary of the toxic terminology of populism*, a list of over 400 words and expressions which is growing by the day. Just a few moments ago I added the phrase ‘mediaeval methods’, a euphemism for torture used yesterday by the UK government to describe what they intend to apply to get MPs to back their latest Brexit deal.

George Orwell long ago exposed the twisting of truth and the hypocrisies of political language, but he was living in a much much simpler world. The language I am working with – novel notions like the Backstop, new idioms like dog-whistle and dogpile, jargon like identitarian, pathocracy or factuality – is not straightforward and not neutral or innocent. These are expressions designed to describe a changing social landscape, but also often designed to baffle, to bamboozle and confuse, to manipulate us. This of course is not new – the language of advertising and of politics has been doing this for a long time, but the multichannels, platforms and outlets and the multimedia techniques employed are far more pervasive and sophisticated than ever before.

Americans refer to words as ‘skunked’ if their meanings have become distorted and they become toxified, so that elite, metropolitan and cosmopolitan, snowflake and melt become slurs; libertarian, which once meant progressive, now refers to the far right, politically correct and social justice warrior and virtue-signalling are insults. When Boris Johnson calls his predecessor a girly swot, accuses a critic of humbug, the cosy, dated words are uttered with barely concealed venom.

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In the UK we still prize a sense of humour and some terms do sound lighthearted: cakeism is wanting to have your cake and eat it  – this time used by the EU against the UK for once – when Jeremy Corbyn is described as a magic grandpa or the absolute boy, the comments are double-edged to say the least. The so-called centrist dad (I’m probably one myself) is not just an ageing moderate but a feeble, cowardly enabler of the far right; magic money tree and unicorn are definitely not meant to be funny, and gammon** describes a ruddy-faced apopleptic male, invariably a Brexit supporter, but the word is an expression of genuine hate by the left.

There are some ironic phrases I find funny despite their serious intent: one is ‘Airfix Patriotism’ – Airfix sold plastic kits in the 50s and 60s for making model warplanes, and dads and kids would buy them and stick them together  with glue, evoking the heroic actions of pilots in the second world war – the patriotic rantings of the right today have been seen as based not on any understanding of our history but on a caricatured, kitsch vision of a heroic past. In the same way Ladybird libertarians base their false memories of an idyllic England on the beautiful watercolour illustrations in the Ladybird childrens books and on comics and tea-towels rather than social realities.

The terms that irritate me, though, are the clichés, catchphrases and slogans endlessly repeated; take back control, get it done, the will of the people, Brexit means Brexit…

There are scientific, technical-sounding words being bandied about which actually describe frightening changes in power relations: ethnonationalism, nativism, pathocracy (the rule of sociopaths and psychopaths), sadopopulism (strongman rulers who end up victimising even their own supporters) and even homonationalism – the co-opting of LGBT issues to advance a racist ideology.

Donald Trump is famous for the crudity of his language, but the metaphors used in political discourse in the UK have also moved further and further into the realm of conflict, warfare, occupation and collaboration: first directed at our supposed enemies in the EU, traitor, betrayal, saboteur are now aimed at anyone at home – quitlings or quislings – rabble – who fails to toe the party line with enough enthusiasm. Academics in the US and UK are analysing the rhetoric and the metaphors but tend to discuss these things with each other I want to talk to the public, to make people more aware.

Of course new circumstances do demand new language and some expressions just fill what linguists call a ‘lexical gap’ in the language: both-sidesism, whataboutery, de-platforming, cancel culture all were coined to describe concepts that didn’t exist or weren’t so important in the past, the whole vocabulary of Brexit, including the word itself is unprecedented. It sometimes feels as if our whole reality is unprecedented, and we, whether we lean to the right or to the left, just wish it would stop, but it’s not over yet: inevitably there will be much more verbiage, rhetoric, toxic terminology, to come…

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/08/23/a-glossary-of-skunked-terms-brexitspeak-and-the-toxic-terminology-of-populism/

**https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/05/15/gammon-up-against-the-wall/

 

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READ MY LIPS – a Catchphrase is forever

Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but primarily by catchwords.

– Robert Louis Stevenson 

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In the end, Mr. Trump’s simple promise to ‘Make America Great Again,’ a catchphrase Mrs. Clinton dismissed as a vow to return to a racist past already long disappeared, would draw enough white Americans to the polls to make up for his low minority support.

– Amy Chozick, New York Times, November 9, 2016

 

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A poll of 2000 representative adult citizens has just revealed, according to surrounding publicity, the British public’s fifty favourite catchphrases. I was asked to comment on the survey and its findings and have expanded on those first thoughts here…

  1. Linguists describe the catchphrase as a ‘pre-formed lexical unit’, a component of the lexical repertoire shared by individual speakers and wider social groups. A catchphrase is ‘disseminated’ – spread – by repeated media usage and by word of mouth repetition.
  2. A catchphrase is typically a sequence of several words which works in memory and in conversation as a single unit. It triggers recognition because it is used repeatedly across society and this recognition in turn triggers the pleasure of sharing a cultural allusion with other people.
  3. Catchphrases, like proverbs, slogans or clichés (not to mention adages, maxims, platitudes, sayings and mottos), work because they encode ideas that are wise or funny or inspiring – sometimes all three at once. They also work well in interactions because they are information shortcuts or emotional prompts that can be slipped into conversations instead of having to explain interesting or complex ideas at length. In the digital and visual sphere hashtags and memes share many of the catchphrase’s attributes.
  4. A catchphrase such as ‘I don’t believe it!’ expresses a mix of exasperation, world-weary resignation and fatalistic humour that will be familiar from many people’s personal experience. ‘Don’t panic!’ is a piece of urgent advice that fits almost all of the traumas that life inflicts upon us. (The same words were memorably used in the cult TV series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’)
  5. The psychology of using a catchphrase is similar to that of telling a joke or repeating a famous quote: it not only conveys an opinion or information but forms a social bond of intimacy between the user and whoever they are talking to.
  6. Many catchphrases are associated with a particular performer, celebrity or public figure and so have a double impact in evoking that person’s trademark persona and attributes as well as the ideas they originally expressed. Catchphrases from much-loved shows lodge in the listener’s mind and stay with them as pleasurable memories to replay over and over again.
  7. Some catchphrases – ‘it is what it is’, for example, mimic a philosopher or sage expressing universal truths in simple language. The repetition used drives home the idea and its finality is effective in closing down a discussion – but at the same time this kind of catchphrase (like its abrupt synonym ‘end of’) can irritate the hearer if it is thought to be meaningless or stating the obvious or falsely affecting profundity. ‘Simples’, on the other hand is inoffensive and works especially well because it is itself as simple as it can be, as well as teasingly funny and associated with a lovable, if fictionalised and Russian-accented creature.
  8. Catchphrases derive their power from compressing quite complex ideas into short sequences and reinforce their power by employing unexpected juxtapositions and by using striking or clever combinations of sound (‘phonaesthetics’ or ‘sound symbolism’) that work just as in poetry or literature to arouse feelings in the listener. A very short expression such as ‘beermunch’ (the product name associated with the poll promotion in question) brings two already very familiar words together for the first time and combines two short, sharp contrasting sounds, sounds that for many will evoke the act of imbibing a stimulating liquid and the act of ‘chomping’ on delicious snack food.
  9. Catchphrases are a key component of popular culture as they connect the world of entertainment and consumption with the everyday concerns of real people – their feelings and experiences, their shared pleasures and their struggles and frustrations, and especially their triumphs over adversity.
  10. Some catchphrases (like buzzwords, linguists call these ‘vogue terms) quickly fall out of use or soon begin to sound dated and embarrassing. What is notable in the latest list, however, is how many of the expressions chosen are decades old and still in favour. It seems that certain phrases reverberate across generations, becoming part of the shared vocabulary of family members and neighbours (more technically ‘familect’).

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So here are…

 THE NATION’S TOP 50 CATCHPHRASES – as of September 2019 

  1. I don’t believe it! – Victor Meldrew
  2. Simples – Compare the Market
  3. Don’t panic! – Lance-Corporal Jones/Dad’s Army
  4. Lovely jubbly – Del Boy/Only Fools and Horses
  5. I had a cunning plan! – Tony Robinson / Blackadder
  6. To me, to you – Chuckle Brothers
  7. I’ll be back – Arnold Schwarzenegger / Terminator 2
  8. Nice to see you – to see you nice – Bruce Forsyth
  9. Only me! – Harry Enfield
  10. Rodney, you plonker! Del Boy/Only Fools and Horses
  11. Cheeky Nando’s
  12. How YOU doin’? Joey from FRIENDS
  13. Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once – ‘Allo ‘Allo
  14. Computer says no – Little Britain
  15. Garlic bread! – Peter Kay
  16. Should’ve gone to Specsavers – Specsavers
  17. D’oh! – Homer Simpson
  18. Am I bovvered? Catherine Tate
  19. The name’s Bond… James Bond – James Bond
  20. Beam me up, Scotty – Star Trek
  21. It is what it is – Love Island
  22. Aha! – I’m Alan Partridge
  23. What’s occurring? – Gavin and Stacey
  24. I’ve started so I’ll finish – Mastermind presenter
  25. It’s goodnight from me, and it’s goodnight from him – The Two Ronnies
  26. I’m free! – Mr Humphries/Are You Being Served
  27. Ooh Betty – Frank Spencer
  28. You dirty old man! – Steptoe and Son
  29. Lads lads lads – and everybody! – Ladbrokes
  30. Exterminate! – Dalek
  31. Live Long and Prosper – Star Trek
  32. We’re going out-out – Mickey Flanagan
  33. I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse – The Godfather
  34. Have a break, have a Kit Kat – Kit Kat
  35. Scorchio! – The Fast Show
  36. Because I’m worth it – L’Oreal
  37. Bazinga! – The Big Bang Theory
  38. It’s good, but it’s not right – Roy Walker/Catchphrase
  39. Who loves ya, baby! – Kojak
  40. I ain’t getting’ on no plane! – Mr T/The A Team
  41. I’m Lovin’ It – McDonald’s
  42. Shut that door – Larry Grayson
  43. Smokin’! – Jim Carrey – The Mask
  44. On that bombshell… – Jeremy Clarkson / Top Gear
  45. You are the weakest link – goodbye! – Anne Robinson / The Weakest Link
  46. You’ll like this – not a lot – Paul Daniels
  47. …Which was nice – The Fast Show
  48. No likey, no lighty! – Take Me Out
  49. Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis? – Diff’rent Strokes
  50. Giggity – Quagmire / Family Guy

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And here is how the poll results were relayed to a waiting public…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7520653/I-dont-believe-Victor-Meldrews-catchphrase-voted-nations-favourite-time.html

 

 Grumpy Victor Meldrew's catchphrase topped the list