Language changes and evolves but doesn’t always carry everyone with it.

During lunch with a couple with whom my wife and I have been friends for many decades, conversation turned to words which irritate us. We began with “pop” — “I’m just going to pop out to the shops.” Why, we complained, should it be necessary to replace “go” with “pop”.

We found we were not short of examples to complain about. One of my particular dislikes is the use of “kids” for children. I (rather pompously) think that the word kids should be restricted to young goats, but I admit that in this I am clearly in a losing battle. Pretty well everyone now uses kids for children. I accept that I am in a small minority — but I am certainly not going to use the word myself.

The same applies to “guys”, often, inevitably, linked with “hi”. “Hi, you guys,” applied to both men and women, has become very popular, but certainly not with me. Indeed, I tend to shudder when people use “hi”, as Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, did recently when talking to people about the Olympics. “Hi folks,” he began. Why, I asked myself, could he not have said “Hallo everyone”?

It is not just words, but frequently used phrases that I find irritating. One of them is “at the end of the day”, which is in effect a way of indicating “all things considered”. There is nothing really wrong with it, but I still feel that it is often used as a kind of substitute for thought. An even better example of this is “at this moment in time”. In what way, I ask myself, does it mean anything different from “now”. And if the answer is that it is not at all different, why say it? I feel similarly about “in terms of”, which rarely, if ever, adds anything, except superfluous words, to a statement.

Explain please?

Some quite common current usages are difficult to understand, if one looks at them logically. Why, for example, are thoughts and reflections described as being “outside the envelope”, particularly given the fact that fewer people write letters, and therefore use envelopes, than was the case when I was young? I have a similar difficulty, though for rather different reasons, with the idea of thinking “outside the box”. It obviously implies thinking widely and without restraint, but I have never thought of myself as thinking, or doing anything else, inside a box, and would indeed find being inside a box restraining.

Inappropriate usage

Irritation of a different kind is caused by the use of what I consider inappropriate words to describe emotion. A good example is the use of “awesome” to indicate something which has given pleasure or excitement. For me, the word has a negative rather than a positive meaning.

I turn now to a word which for many years has been used with a meaning that is not consistent with its origin. The word is “decimate”, the strict meaning of which is to reduce by one tenth, a meaning which clearly reflects its Latin root. Hardly anyone now uses it in that meaning. Rather, it is used to indicate a much greater reduction. The book Common Errors in English Usage comments: “You can usually get away with using ‘decimate’ to mean ‘drastically reduce in numbers’, but you’re taking a bigger risk when you use it to mean ‘utterly wipe out’.” That, I believe, is eminently sensible, because it accepts the fact that usage changes — and even in my most pedantic moments I agree with that — but indicates that there should be some constraints.

Am I being pedantic? I am sure my grandchildren would say that I am, and in honesty I would have to agree with them. In reality, I recognise that language changes, and it is change that keeps it alive. Language has to be looked at in perspective, and while writing this, I remembered something that vividly illustrated that. I looked in the style book for The Times (1953 revision) and found what I had remembered: “pedestrian for walker was regarded as merely pompous or facetious until it was discovered by the police, who may be left to enjoy it”. Even in 1953 that seemed to be a tongue-in-cheek comment — and it certainly did not appear in later editions. Even the most pedantic would not now think the word pedestrian to be pompous or facetious.

I agree that language should not be allowed to ossify — but I retain my pedantic right to be irritated by some changes.

Email: bill.kirkman@gmail.com