An apology from a ‘dry-headed blockhead’
ACATCH-UP column, today; terrible give-away, declaring that a columnist’s head is dry. Either dry or overladen by a last-night of miserable inputs on Africa and South Africa retrogressing.
Today’s too nice a day for that, feelings like spring misread its calendar, pitching up early by a month.
Let’s wallow in inconsequentialities, like Home Affairs’ hours: Monday 8.30am-12pm Tuesday 8.30am-12pm Wednesday 8.30am-12pm Thursday 8.30am-12pm Friday 8.30am-12pm Saturday and Sunday Closed They’re telling us they work a 77½ hour week. Yusssss! What super humans!
Nearly twice as much as normal people. How privileged we are to have them! Can we enter them for a global award?
Except we don’t really believe them. We get out our magnifying glass and our detective’s hat and discover that they, too, are falling for the weirdest growing national habit.
They have decided that 11.57am can become 11.58am, can become 11.59am, can become 11.59.30am, can become 11.59.59am, can become 12pm.
This wasn’t always so. There was a time that no am or pm attached to 12.00. It was 12 noon or 12 midnight. We somehow adjusted that, for a while – the eighties to the noughties, I’d say – to midnight being 12pm and noon being 12am.
But now that has well and truly switched. That’s fascinating, I would say. How? And why?
This is the second time I’ve seen a fad conquering English. The other – in England, also around the 80s – was so big that it was distinguished by a name, Grocer’s Apostrophe.
What’s happened to that fad is disputed. Some say that England’s grocers have got the message; their apostrophe is wandering back to oblivion.
But it is also said that other quarters, such as accountancy, have caught the virus and are using it in numbers and figures.
There have even been voices in corners as varied as California’s colleges and Delhi’s public service, ringing alarms.
Both phenomena, I’d say – the 12am/ pm and the apostrophe – qualify for the hall of fame of mankind’s marvellous idiosyncrasies. How about words under change? I’m still to learn why “learners” kicked “pupils” out of fashion, but that doesn’t mean I’m prejudiced against new words.
Look, among hundreds, at the sheer beauty of “lawfare”, which I thought was our own Seffrican contribution to global English.
Where has it ever been more fitting than here, with political players suing each other as readily as eating breakfast? But no, it comes from a Harvard essay in 2001.
Plenty of new words are not just neat, they grow civilised. I was young then, and defensively conservative. I’m old enough now to apologise. What blockheads we were, resenting women’s escape from life defined by marriage.
It’s around us, good people, closing in, making writing into sheer space-filling, like loading rubbish into a wheelbarrow.
Damn, we might have dry-head days but we must keep trying!