Lost for words: John Humphrys
Have you ever passed a mechanic’s workshop that advertised MOT’s while you wait or, worse still, read a piece in a newspaper that said in the 1970’s? Or maybe you have sat through a party political broadcast that used a lot of meaningless psychobabble like we will be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime or we now have to operate within shifting paradigms? We all now live in an age of information overload, with media that can produce billions of words a second, and the language we use for communication is changing faster than the speed of light…….and much too fast for the likes of John Humphrys, stalwart of the Today programme on Radio 4.
Humphrys has a long-standing reputation (which he likes, by the way) of being the grumpiest of grumpy old men, and his manner of interviewing the great and the good (and I mean that metaphorically, of course) betrays his utter impatience with people who seldom speak plainly or, for that matter, to the question. For that he receives an equal amount of praise and criticism from the general public, but he will never reform his ways. But if you want to encounter Humphrys at his light-hearted best at being grumpy, Lost for Words will be an excellent read.
He is not a linguistic expert, nor someone who has any special academic qualification for commenting on the use of language, but as a journalist for over 50 years, he has been exposed to a lot of abuse of the English language, and the ‘University of life’ has taught him a thing or two. Although whole chapters are dedicated to the misuse of grammar and syntax, and the misunderstanding of basic English words (like disinterested for example) and so on, I found his chapters on the abuse of the powerful emotive force of expressions (which he divides into boo phrases and hurrah phrases) to be the most intriguing. Although this volume was written back in 2004, his reflections of the abuse of language by politicians at that time shows a clear lead through to the kind of language and fake news that is being exploited by today’s ruling classes. Couple that with a general refusal to answer direct questions by substituting tired mantras (remember Theresa May’s strong and stable government mantra), and we should not be surprised with the rise of populist leaders today.
The subtitle to his book is The mangling and manipulating of the English language……..if I had been tasked with the duty of writing his subtitle, I might have been tempted to use the noun manipulation instead of yet another gerund. But then that’s me….