Et In Argot Ego is a genre-leaping essay which delivers a passionate defence, and celebration with relish, of the English language’s reflexivity.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have heard the cases for and against those who stand before you. You have heard that while they admit they have been seen, heard and recorded together on many occasions, they each maintain that they acted and continue to act independently and with no malice aforethought.
And yet. And yet.
You had been asked by the prosecution to consider them as a group for the alleged – and I quote my learned counsel – “overall and accumulated harm they do”, and that your verdict should encompass one and all. There has been barely room in court for the defence teams for each of the five accused and they have argued vigorously that each acted alone and innocently.
After much consultation and deliberation, I direct you to consider the cases separately and allocate equal attention to each of the accused, to wit: Guys, Deep Dive, Icon (also known as Iconic), Curate and Hack.
Do not let yourselves be swayed by the relative youth of some of the accused. The esteemed writer of perennially heart-warming prose, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, happily used the word ‘bimbo’ to denote a dim young man, yet it was used by others at the time to denote a woman – these others clearly unaware that, being an Italian noun, it should be ‘bimba’ – and now, through ignorance and repeated use, it is only used for women and a neologism was very recently scraped together for men, that is, ‘himbo’. Fortunately, a neologism beyond our purview.
Both sides call upon you to view the English language as an inspiring, flexible and ever-evolving creature, but while the defence teams have presented, if I may generalise their stance by quoting the popular musical based on a fine work by, yes, dear PG Wodehouse, as “anything goes”, the prosecution implores you to view those in the dock as not only criminals in their own right but “compounding the impoverishment of the English language” committed, they attest, by ‘Kind of’, ‘Sort of’, “Like” and ‘You know’.
We have heard about active and passive vocabularies, as well as Multicultural London English – most educational, whether this is for our nation’s future peng or not – and many statistics have been bandied about – I thank both sides for their mercifully short Power Point presentations. If I may refer briefly to the figures, to remind you: on the one hand, it is estimated in studies that a native English speaker commands in early adulthood some 20 thousand words rising to 40 to 48 thousand in middle age, on the other hand it is contested that one may “get by comfortably” with fewer than one thousand lemmings. I do apologise, lemmas, that is, families of words.
Now to summarise what has been said about the individuals. First, Guys. May I once again thank the ladies and gentlemen of the jury for their forbearance during the rather chaotic scenes when representatives in the gallery of the #metoo movement began fighting amongst themselves when they loudly realised that they had overlooked this term for several years. I have never heard a penny drop with such volume. The defence asserts simply that Guys is inclusive, no longer gender-specific, merely an option, such as ‘folks’ and ‘everyone’, as it is so widely used, across the spectrum of activity without raising complaint – as they put it, volenti non fit injuria. The prosecution presented a similarly wide range of materials, including adverts and recordings in educational establishments, over which they had dubbed “girls”, “ladies” and even “dolls” (as in the musical “Guys and Dolls”) where ‘guys’ had been originally used to address groups of girls and/or women, and, to the amusement of the gallery, where in the new versions the groups solely consisted of boys and/or men. Their expert witness, from the United Nation’s Gender Equality group, said that Guys actively undermines centuries of struggle for equality and sends the damaging message that females of any age should aspire to be a substitute male, and, worse still, that being acknowledged as female was worthless.
And so, to Deep Dive. Is the accused merely riding a small wave, ahem, of fashion? That was the argument for the defence, citing “playful” examples where the words “investigation”, “examination”, or simply “look” could have been used, as in the programme described by the Guardian newspaper as a ‘deep dive into J-Lo’s megastardom’; I apologise for delaying proceedings while this phrase was explained to me and I obtained confirmation that the programme featured no instance of diving, deep or otherwise. The defence insisted that Deep Dive was in the alliterative British tradition of ‘willy-nilly’, ‘short shrift’, and ‘naughty but nice’, the latter penned by Salman Rushdie, no less. The prosecution’s witness from the British Sub-Aqua Club gave an enthusiastic explanation of the term in the technical sense, using rather pungent diving equipment and snippets of film footage, then concluded that they hoped that the new use of the term would boost membership.
Now to Icon. The prosecution presented us with images of icons and actual icons from a wealth of orthodox churches and the court heard from archbishops, in person and online, as our courts advance in technology, pleading for the word for these sacred images to be respected and not to be, I quote, “trivialised and debased”. The spirited argument in defence of the widespread use of Icon/Iconic was essentially that in our modern and, in many ways, secular world, one is surrounded by icons, potent symbols, from Dinky Toys and the Parthenon to Madonna, or was it Maradona? Ah, thank you, clerk. Both of those people.
One is, however, reminded of the immortal phrase by W.S. Gilbert: “When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”
Turning to Curate. Again, the defence of no harm intended and Curate’s appearance merely another example of the many and admirable levels of the English language at play was presented. Those involved in popular culture, we were told, have moved away from using ‘select’ to indicate some semblance of taking care (as in the Latin cura) to gather items for an audience, to now deploying Curate, in homage to those professionals who create major exhibitions – the curators. The prosecution introduced distinguished representatives from several leading museums and galleries, as well as a spokesperson from the Museums Association who was far from happy that curators, the majority of whom have university degrees and constantly expand their professional skills and knowledge, were being aligned with people who, I quote, “shove stuff together”.
Finally, Hack. One might say that it was inevitable that Hack should chose to represent themselves, assuring us that they had produced a “cool hack” for it – LIP – that is, litigant in person. Hack claimed that the proportion of the UK population who understood ‘hack’ to mean a quick, decisive movement, or a cunning way around a computer system, was close to 98% compared to those who still viewed it as a horse of no particular merit or an uninspired journalist. This figure was contested by the prosecution, although they failed to produce any survey or material in support of their position – perhaps because of the sudden technical problems with their laptops – and then the hack writers who had been summoned failed to appear. A mystery indeed.
In conclusion, as you embark on your deliberations, I leave you with this thought – here I lightly paraphrase an observation made a good century ago by the great philosopher and writer George Bernard Shaw – “it is impossible for an English speaker to open their mouth without making some other English speaker hate or despise them.”