Mind your language: English rules
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