Hark! Is that the sound of bastions crumbling?
Shock, horror! The BBC, once revered as a paragon of correct English, seems to have slipped from its pedestal of late. Many people (including me, as I blogged about here) have become increasingly irritated or concerned by our national broadcaster’s lapses from the norm when it comes to English grammar, usage, and pronunciation. Is this a sign that the country is going to Hell in a handbasket, or a welcome loosening of outdated, inflexible rules that’s indicative of a more relaxed approach to standard English in today’s society?
Standards come tumbling down?
It seems that there even are those within the BBC itself who sit firmly in the ‘deplorable lowering of standards’ camp. A recent article in the Daily Mail quoted the broadcaster’s newsroom style editor as stating that he would ‘love to see someone at the top of the BBC…put the emphasis back on the quality of our language so we can once again be a leader for the people who look to us’.
The editor in question was responding to listeners’ and viewers’ complaints about some specific bugbears: those mentioned in the Mail’s article were the use of chair to mean ‘a chairman or chairwoman’ and the blurring of the distinction between historic and historical. While the sticklers amongst us may have valid reasons for criticizing the BBC (and other media organizations), is it really out of step on these particular points of English?
Is a chair just a piece of furniture?
Let’s look at the use of ‘chair’ to mean ‘a chairman or chairwoman’ first. Far from being a recently coined right-on (i.e. non-gender-specific) way of referring to the person in charge of a committee, meeting, or company, this meaning was actually first recorded in the 17th century. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation, from 1659:
The Chair behaves himself like a Busby amongst so many school-boys..and takes a little too much on him.
Further evidence, from the 18th century to the present, shows that such bastions of literature and the press as Charles Dickens, The Times, and the New Yorker have all used ‘chair’ in this way. Admittedly, chairs in the past were predominantly male, but now that the person heading up a meeting or organization is just as likely to be female, is the person’s gender really significant here? For me, ‘chair’ is a handy and concise term to describe the role, obviating the need for the rather clumsy ‘chairperson’. It’s perfectly acceptable standard English, and those who object (I suspect) are under the misconception that the word was coined purely for PC purposes so as to avoid the gender-specific terms chairman and chairwoman.
Historic versus historical
These similar adjectives have long had overlapping meanings. Today, it’s generally accepted that historic should be used to mean ‘famous or important in history’ (the launch of this radio network was a historic event for Aboriginal people). Historical, on the other hand, means ‘relating to history or past events’ (the film is faithful to the historical record).
But wait! Language is constantly changing and nothing can be done to prevent this: words gain new meanings and lose old ones, as is illustrated when we trace the development of historic and historical. The OED reveals that historic originally meant ‘relating to history’ (i.e. *the same* as historical). This meaning was first recorded in the late 16th century: historic wasn’t used to mean ‘famous or important in history’ until the mid 18th century. Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage takes a fairly relaxed view regarding the confusion between the two words, so let’s not be too quick to lambaste the BBC for either of these perceived ‘errors’.
The case for standard English
Nonetheless, we all have pet hates that induce ‘grrs’: I wince every time I hear ‘an historic occasion’ or ‘myself and my wife went to Cyprus’; the misspelling of lose (as in ‘I need to loose some weight’) also exasperates me no end. These and similar errors are cropping up regularly in online media and even in published books and periodicals, and I’ve noticed hundreds of critical comments about this. We’re not just crabby old pedants: there’s a serious issue at stake here. The more people hear or read such linguistic lapses, validated by occurring in trusted, authoritative sources, the more they will replicate these in their own writing, and a vicious circle is created.
I feel passionately that, in all news reporting and other factual or ‘serious’ programming, media organizations should adhere to standard English. Why? Because departures from standard English on this scale hinder effective communication and understanding. We’re likely to be distracted from the actual content or misinterpret what’s being said. It’s far more significant to learn about the situation in the Middle East, for instance, than to be sidetracked by one’s annoyance on hearing a correspondent saying ‘it was an historic event’. Every time a presenter or journalist deviates from the norm, the message they’re trying to convey to listeners, readers, and viewers is becoming diluted or, worse, lost completely.
Furthermore, we look to the media to set an example. School students and non-native speakers of English are encouraged by their teachers to learn and improve their English by reading and viewing English-language newspapers, websites, and TV. How can they learn correct writing and spelling when our national media is littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes?
Of course, context is all: there must be flexibility in drama, comedy, chat shows, and the like. I would never expect anyone participating in such programming to speak perfectly formed English, and it would be stilted, unnatural, and deeply tedious if this were so.
Food for thought?
I hope this has aired some relevant and appropriate concerns: many friends and acquaintances share my views, but are we fighting a losing (never a loosing) battle and outside the general consensus? What do you think?