Mind your lan­guage: English rules

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor - Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

WHEN Ki­pling said ‘To be born an English­man is to win first prize in the lottery of life’, he might to­day have sub­sti­tuted the words ‘To speak English’. It’s not just that it will get you al­most any­where, but it’s the na­ture of the lan­guage it­self. There is no other that has such an abil­ity to en­dow mean­ing to sim­ple words or phrases, to re­use them to meet new cir­cum­stances, to adopt and adapt words from out­side and to refuse to ac­cept any in­ter­fer­ence by lin­guis­tic au­thor­ity. Not for us an English equiv­a­lent of the Académie française. Ours is a lan­guage that bub­bles with ir­rev­er­ent life. It has been changed and moulded by great writ­ers, or­a­tors and preach­ers, as well as by sim­ple and une­d­u­cated peo­ple, pop­ulists and rhymesters.

A sin­gle word tells that story best. My mother used to say she’d ‘pop down to the vil­lage’ to get some­thing she’d for­got­ten and this es­tab­lished in her chil­dren’s minds that ba­sic use of the verb ‘to pop’. It’s a won­der­fully English con­struc­tion—just three let­ters to con­vey not only the very gen­eral sense of do­ing, but also that it won’t be any trou­ble, take much time or in­volve un­due ef­fort.

That’s why the word ‘pop’ has be­come in­dis­pens­able to all those peo­ple in semi­au­thor­ity who want to in­sist on an ac­tion, but are deal­ing with some­one who is in a po­si­tion to ob­ject. Flight at­ten­dants ask you to ‘pop your seat belt on’ and they of­fer to ‘pop your hand­bag in the over­head locker’; nurses ‘pop this pil­low un­der your arm’. Pop en­ables them to de­mand with­out giv­ing of­fence sim­ply be­cause it can carry this idea that what we in­sist on do­ing is ac­tu­ally un­de­mand­ing and easy.

How­ever, pop is too con­ve­nient a word to be re­stricted. English is not a lan­guage that al­lows a good word to lie idle. Cock­neys used pop as slang for pawn­ing goods and this sense con­tin­ues to­day in the nurs­ery-rhyme line ‘pop goes the weasel’. It prob­a­bly refers to the rhyming slang phrase for coat—‘weasel and stoat’— thus, pop goes the weasel meant you pawned your Sun­day suit on Mon­day and re­deemed it later in the week when you were paid.

That same ir­re­sistible English habit of reusing and re­form­ing words ex­plains the phrase ‘pop your clogs’. Un­like Pop Goes the Weasel, it’s sur­pris­ingly modern. There are sim­ply no writ­ten ex­am­ples be­fore 1970, when Punch used it to mean die—pre­sum­ably be­cause a north­ern fac­tory worker would only pawn his clogs when he would never need them again. Some have ar­gued there must there­fore have been a much ear­lier oral use, but there’s no ev­i­dence of it and it’s more likely sim­ply to be an ex­am­ple of the joy­ous and in­ven­tive use of English.

Be­cause of al­lit­er­a­tion, pop is nat­u­rally any­thing in which a cork has to be pulled or a pop­ping noise made. That ex­plains pop­corn and gin­ger pop and, among the favoured, it has even been ap­plied to Cham­pagne. It’s ob­vi­ously been a short­ened form of pop­u­lar from Top of the Pops and pop stars to pop cul­ture and Pop Art.

To­day, it’s been pressed into use for the popup shop, restau­rant or art show. Th­ese pop up, seem­ingly ef­fort­lessly and short-lived, then I sup­pose, ‘pop down’, leav­ing no trace. I fear that the French also have ‘le pop-up shop’, which fol­lows so many other words and phrases from ‘les sexy girls’ to ‘le com­puter’ and, very sadly, ‘le Brexit’ as ex­am­ples of the in­fi­nite fa­cil­ity of the English lan­guage to cap­ture a con­cept ex­actly and pro­vide the word with no in­ter­fer­ence from the aca­demic thought po­lice who so dom­i­nate le français.

‘“Pop” has be­come in­dis­pens­able to all those peo­ple in semi­au­thor­ity who in­sist on an ac­tion

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