Monday 27 April 2009

Are you a word nerd? Do you know your ‘til from your till?

I’m sure I used to have a subconscious mind, but these days all I ever hear about is the unconscious.
Everyone is passionate about something. As a kid I used to go to school on London trains, speeding past thousands of back gardens leading up to terraced houses and semis, each as different to all the other houses and gardens as it is possible for identically-built gardens and houses to be.
Everyone was into something. Right there, blurred by speed and glass, was everybody’s passion.
This one grew leeks, that one loved her roses, that one was building a pond and herself over there had put down a crazy paving patio with deck chairs.
Even as that naive teenager, I didn’t suspect she loved crazy paving. But sipping her Campari and soda of an evening, she could dream of flying to Luton Airport and looking like Lorraine Chase.
There’s loads of things in life that we love, in different ways. I love my wife, my family, my friends and then, in a different way, I love my football team, north Mayo beaches and pie chips and beans.
But for pure non-physical passion, words motivate me to think and search for truth; to master a craft and explore an art. So I’m a word nerd, and I noticed when people stopped saying subconscious.
Freud used the word unconscious and in all fields of mental medicine they use the word unconscious too, but language works on many levels, and out here on the streets where we’re just mental without the medicine, those words that mean very precise things to head doctors mean very different things to us.
In my own wee mental world, the word unconscious was what you ended up as, after three bottles of Buckie, or a swift blow to the head from that lamppost that leaped out and head butted you.
Unconscious was to me a state of being, in which you were neither thinking nor doing anything. You were on at the mains but your plug was out of the wall.
Subconscious, on the other hand, always sounded much more my cup of tea. To the mental medicine folk, the subconscious is merely where you keep your phone numbers; where thoughts of hunger come from when you smell sizzling bacon.
That’s the official version, but it’s much more fun to ignore all that and just go back to what we meant by the subconscious before we knew better.
Wasn’t your subconscious that potentially blissful and equally dangerous bubbling stew of all your darkest secret bad bits? Wasn’t it the answer to every “Where the hell did that come from?” question.
Thirty years ago, far less worried about staying alive than I am now, I dropped acid to journey into my subconscious. I wanted to go all transcendental and deep and wise and meaningful, like the Beatles and their Yogi, but sadly, I wasn’t quite ready for my Enlightenment.
All that happened was that I thought I was Sir Lancelot for three hours, and then, to the horror of my friends, I spent ten minutes shouting aggressively at some plain-clothed cops, before stumbling home and lying on my bed for four hours, wishing the feeling that I was onboard a boat would go away.
Goodness knows why I bothered, because being a prolific dreamer, I'd welcome a break from my subconscious.
Or is it my unconscious?
Who can truly say? There is no right or wrong with spoken language. All that ever matters is to be completely understood. So we quickly come around to the fact that wicked means great, bad means good and cool means hot.
There’s nothing new in this kind of verbal evolution. Many might like to be considered a sophisticate, but in early usage, to be accused of sophistication was to be corrupted, to have no innocence.
Words change all the time. I read and loved all of Ken Bruen’s ‘Jack Taylor’ books, but winced whenever I saw him reduce ‘until’ to 'till’. Then, high on hubris, pumping with my own pomposity, I started to see it everywhere: Till till till, all over the shop, ‘til finally, worst of all, I found it in a document several hundred years old.
Undeniably wrong, I realised all I’d been responding to was those booming words lasered into my brain by a crazed teacher at an English public school:
“A till is a cash register, Adley, neither a contraction nor a diminutive, you vile half breed ignoramus.”
Aha! The reason it’s important for me never to abbreviate ‘until’ to ‘till’ lay all along hidden in my subconscious!
Nobody else gives a damn, and quite frankly, I agree with them.
In his book ‘Made in America’, Bill Bryson claims that the English spoken by Americans is actually more historically authentic than that which we, the English and you the Irish speak. Isolated and entrenched, the English speakers of America carried on with the language with which they arrived.
If that’s right, I reckon there must have been a terrible storm on that crossing, and a bag marked ‘vowels’ must have fallen overboard and be lying deep in the North Atlantic Ocean. While aluminum, color and flavor work fine, they look to Europeans a little naked.
Maybe that bag of vowels was accidentally sent to the wrong New World, and ended up in Australia, because those Aussies seem to have ‘o’s to spare. Every word in sight is shrunk and ended with an ‘o’.
Afternoons are arvos, relatives are relos, service stations are servos and rather brilliantly, the Off Licence is a Bottlo.
So sad but true, I give a damn about words. I love them and sometimes they love me back, but the relationship is full time and never-ending. I’ve let ‘till’ go now, although I still twitch a little when I see it, like when you look at an old photo of a dead childhood pet.
Anyway, there’s already a new verbal bête noire on my block.
Nothing gets my back up more than people trying to impress with words they don’t understand. At the moment some are saying ‘apropos’ as if it’s some kind of fancy French way of saying appropriate. Yuck, but more to the point: why? If you’re going to use a word, pay the language some respect and know it makes sense, because words are only worthy if they are understood.
So, till the next time...


Maura McHugh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maura McHugh said...

Dear Charlie,

What a fantastic post! I too love words and hate to see them mangled - well, unless it's achieved in an inventive manner, too often it's done out of stupidity.

"A till is a cash register, Adley, neither a contraction nor a diminutive, you vile half breed ignoramus."

A hilarious quote. I can almost see the man based on your choice of language. See, this is why words are so powerful.

Keep up the good fight.

Charlie Adley said...

Thanks Maura - unfortunatley, i can still see him too!