Misinformed, angry, coffee-addled ranting.
And so it came to pass that today, the front page of the BBC website, one of, if not the most respected sources of news in the world had as it lead topic an incident known as “Plebgate”. For an event that is still making the headlines more than a year after it occurred, Plebgate is more sinfully dull than an afternoon filling out tax forms in a windowless grey room with nothing but a cardboard cut-out of Gordon Brown and a Katie Melua album for comfort. It was a wholly uneventful affair wherein Conservative MP and then Chief Whip (apparently a real job, not some form of public school nickname) Andrew Mitchell allegedly swore at police officers for refusing to allow him to cycle through Downing Street’s Main Gate.
In a grovelling letter of resignation and apology to the Prime Minister, Mitchell said
“It was obviously wrong of me to use such bad language and I am very sorry about it and grateful to the police officer for accepting my apology.”
It’s bizarre and perverse to see a seemingly powerful, respectable person having to make a statement usually reserved for thirteen year olds in detention for swearing in front of a teacher. It’s not unusual however – pathetic, snivelly public apologies are all too common these days. The press decree that an individual has betrayed us all, taking all of our love and affection and throwing it back in our faces, and so must be dragged by a horse through the streets naked whilst we jeer and throw things and they beg for forgiveness. It’s utterly pointless, and for the most part, totally inconsequential. Exactly why the public feels it’s owed some sort of apology for a celebrity cheating on their partner, an issue which literally only affects the parties involved and their families and friends, is something scholars will spend centuries searching fruitlessly for an answer to.
But I digress. According to the reports, amongst other things, Mitchell called the officers involved “plebs” and so the media have done what they always do whenever there’s any form of scandal – picked a word from the incident and stuck the suffix “-gate” on the end of it. Imaginative. Originally, the term is inspired by the Watergate scandal but over the years has become a lazy shorthand for journalists to indicate some form of mild controversy. In this country alone the last few years have seen Sachsgate, Murdochgate, and Bloodgate all hit the headlines amongst countless others. In fact, for a full list of the many and varied “-gates”, have a look at this handy Wikipedia article.
Now, whilst the evolution of language is a fascinating topic, we’ve started to run into some problems. For one thing, under the current rule Watergate should actually be referred to as “Watergategate”, lest future generations think it was merely a scandal involving some water. For another, language is determined solely by those who use it. There may be researchers and experts on the topic, but it is the average person who determines which words get used, and by extension the meaning of those words. Language is a truly democratic system, in that it is both formulated, used and regulated by the public. The problem is – the public are fucking idiots.
Take the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – essentially the lexical bible, it is arguably the most reputable indicator of the existence of a word and the meaning thereof. Words are added all the time to reflect cultural and technological changes. Words like smartphone and new meanings for words such as tablet have been added in order to help us better understand the world around us. This helpfulness is undermined however, when words like “twerking” can now officially win you points in a game of Scrabble. Whilst the word meets the criteria for inclusion on the basis of its cultural usage, surely we as a culture can do without preserving it for posterity? Wouldn’t we better off gritting our teeth, waiting for the fad to blow over and living in a world where Miley Cryus isn’t officially documented?
The other problem with letting the public write the rule book is that even when they’re patently wrong, they’re still right. Since so many people were utter cretins and unable to use the word ‘literally’ correctly, the folks over at the OED have given up and changed the definition. Yes, despite existing to make clear the distinction between whether something is real or figurative, with too many people using ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’ the editors finally said “fuck it, you win”. and changed it so it could mean either. Despite only being noticed in the last couple of months it was changed over two years ago, and according to the video linked to in this paragraph people have been idiots since at least 1796.
So why is all this important? Well despite the image of my English Teacher Grandfather turning in his grave, I must recognise that language evolution is a brilliant, interesting and vital thing. Etymologists will point out that words we commonly use today would have abhorred past generations, and have been subject to just as much accusation of ruining the English language as “bootylicious” did when it was added to the OED. But simply for me, the knowledge that enough people in the world use the words “selfie” and “vajazzle” for them to be recognised by the officials serves as yet another thudding reminder that this world is slipping inexorably, violently towards certain oblivion at the hands of idiots.