There was a time when the mere mention of the name Germaine Greer – pioneering feminist author of ‘The Female Eunuch’ – made grown men (and only grown men) adopt the Direct-free-kick-defensive-wall position favoured by all modern footballers. I had no such reaction when, the other day, I turned on my car radio and was sucked into the middle of a BBC panel show in which she was participating. Greer has long been an occasional, articulate and humorous guest on such programmes. A few years ago she even eulogized one of my all-time heroes, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ Chairman Humphrey ‘Humph’ Lyttleton, describing him as ‘salacious’. Salacious translates into Street English as ‘Dirty Old Man’- an adjective painstakingly earned by the deceased octogenarian, who was the master of double-entendre and, hence, an unlikely guru of the guru of feminists. But we all grow up eventually.
I can forgive Greer and her bra-burning cohorts just about everything, but I cannot accept the pathetically small-minded assault they made on the English language. I refer, of course, to the default pronoun. For centuries the default pronoun has been ‘He/His” (A good student always does his homework). Even if some crazies thought this was not appropriate, there was always ‘They/Their’ (A good student always does their homework) or ‘One/Ones’ (I cannot be bothered with an example). But no, Greer and Co were not satisfied with equality, they wanted liberation (or was it the other way round?) So, ‘She/Hers’ started popping up. And nearly half a century after The Female Eunuch, it looks like the bloody thing is taking off. I recently stopped reading a new, much acclaimed, English Style book because my eyeballs started going in opposite directions around my head at the consistent use of ‘She’. And then, yesterday, my beloved Economist – supposedly slave to the bestselling Economist Style Book – succumbed.
Language undoubtedly evolves, but that evolution – especially in the case of the chaotic English language- should be natural and gradual. This She/He business is pure tampering.
An example of a material, but natural, change in the English language over the last few decades is the reduced use of rhetoric. Asked to reach for your favourite speech (‘your’ is yet another way of getting round the gender-bender issue), you will probably go for something out of 20th century history: Roosevelt’s ‘Nothing to fear but fear itself’; Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches’; Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’. Chances are you will not come up with George W Bush’s, ‘You teach a child to read , and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test’ (which is why he definitely should have stayed with the default pronoun), or even Barack Obama’s…… well, let’s face it, he has simply never said anything worth remembering.
Rhetoric, once a staple of any English-speaking child’s education, has pretty much gone out of the window. People are nowadays as well-educated as those who lead and try to influence them, so rhetoric tends to sound naff. Nevertheless, as pointed out in an article last week in the New York Times by Mark Forsyth (who, even Ms Greer would allow me to refer to as ‘he’), rhetoric still has a central place on Madison Avenue.
I thought it would be fun to see what slogans a tax wonk could come up with based on rhetoric.
‘Intel Inside’ is an example of Alliteration, as is a method for stopping dogs fouling our footpaths: ‘Tax the Turds’ (with a background picture of a traffic warden handing out a ticket).
‘Bond, James Bond’, ‘Be all you can be’, and ‘Home, sweet home’ are diacopes, as is: ‘Tax, your tax’ (with a picture of a Victorian hospital corridor full of occupied beds).
An example of a chiasmus is ‘Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind’. How about a Republican slogan: ‘America must lower taxes, or taxes will lower America’?
Enallage is a deliberate grammatical mistake for effect such as ‘We was robbed’. That could be a good line against a background of a picture of any Finance Minister at any time in history.
But the daddy (or, Ms Greer, should that be ‘mummy’?) of them all is the Tricolon: ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’; ‘Liberte, egalite, fraternite’; ….’Tax, fraud, prison’.