We all rejoice in novelty and experimentation in language. Who could fail to be tickled by Boris Johnson rediscovering wiff-waff, the 19th-century name for ping-pong, when he spoke in Beijing of London’s ambitions for the Olympics?
Who could fail to have their spirits cast down, however, by new words or uses of English that are uninteresting to begin with and that become poisonous by repetition?
One trend became notable, in fact, at the time of the London Olympics. That was when the verbs ‘to podium’ and ‘to medal’ became current. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the verbing of nouns. But often it is a way of trying to sound as if one is part of an insider group – in that case it was presumably a kind of slang favoured by the athletes.
Now a new wave of verbing is upon us, as broadcasters and parties negotiate over television debates for the election. There is much talk of ‘empty-chairing’ the Prime Minister, that is, threatening to go ahead and stage the debates, with an empty chair where he should sit. When it was pointed out that candidates always stand during television debates – which is an interesting anthropological observation in itself – a new word was minted: would the broadcasters dare to ‘empty-podium’ David Cameron? The podium being, to bring us back to the Olympics, a stage on which medal-winners and debaters stand: what was meant was to ‘empty-lectern’.
The verbing of nouns is not the only fashionable language shift that throws up some horrible uses. Another is the use of intransitive verbs as transitive ones. One in particular is common in politics and will be a bane of the election, and that is the promise to ‘grow’ the economy. You can grow crops or geraniums, but the economy is a vast complex of agents who can be influenced and incentivized, but not watered. Just as bad, being surfaced in business jargon all too often recently, is ‘to surface’, meaning ‘to bring to the surface’. To surface is what a submarine or an underwater swimmer does, not a business person bringing a product to the attention of customers.
It is all most concerning. A word that used to mean ‘about’ but which is increasingly used as a synonym for ‘worrying’.