The English Pedant – Choosing your words carefully

Please excuse me – I’ve just had a month of trying to enjoy a football tournament in which my team, England, performed poorly and got knocked out halfway through, so I have been seeking other sources of entertainment within the matches.

Sniggering at the haircuts, for instance. Admiring  the skill and knowledge of some of the commentators. And, as anyone interested in words will understand, picking up on attempts to speak English by people thrust into a position where their knowledge of the game is more important than their command of the language.

You know those situations where you find yourself talking to someone who’s on another intellectual planet, and fancy words keep leaping from your mouth in a subconscious attempt to make yourself sound intelligent? Imagine that happening to you as part of your second career.

When the former Manchester United and England player Phil Neville attempted to follow his brother Gary into broadcasting, he was given the task of co-commentating, which means assisting a professional broadcaster, who does the nuts and bolts, keeps it moving and so on. Commentators can be erudite people: erstwhile masters of the microphone, Brian Moore and Barry Davies, of ITV and the BBC respectively, were products of the same highly-regarded public school, while Martin Tyler, the current distinguished veteran on Sky Sports, also gives the impression that, while he knows a thing or two about football, that is not the extent of his knowledge or interests. With someone of that ilk at the controls, Phil Neville was expected simply to drop insiderly pearls of wisdom into the proceedings at regular intervals.

He was terrible, and he knew it. He sounded nervous, his comments sounded forced and it was an uncomfortable experience all round. If you’d been sitting with him at home or in the pub he would doubtless have had interesting things to say, and because it was Phil Neville, you would have given a certain weight to them automatically. But there he was on television, his every utterance relayed to millions of people he couldn’t see, and it got to him. He just couldn’t relax and be himself.

A goal of rare beauty, Phil.

Aeons ago the former England centre half Jack Charlton  used to do some co-commentating, and he was good at it. He wasn’t, though, a naturally gifted speaker. As a player, Jack was what is often described as “tough and uncompromising”, and you got the sense that he was like that off the pitch too. He wasn’t one for Oscar Wilde-style quips or poetic evocations of the action.

A top player at the time was the Dutchman, Johan Cruyff, whose last name  has an oi sound: croiff. Jack couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, say that. The man was Cruff to him, and because he was from the north-east of England, it came out rhyming with a dog’s woof. Croof!

But never mind; we respected Jack Charlton and he was perceptive. Then one day he was attempting to describe something, but stumbled and fell momentarily silent. “I can’t think of the word,” he admitted, but carried on and it didn’t matter.

All of this leads us to a simple word that has a place in football commentary and came up several times in Euro 2016: purchase. Not in its primary meaning: to buy. Players are bought and sold all the time, but no one in the game refers to that as purchasing, any more than you and I go to the supermarket to purchase some sausages. It’s the sort of word that only police officers use.

Purchase has a secondary meaning, as a noun. To get purchase on something is to grip , lever or strike it sufficiently strongly. It is sometimes used  by builders or motor mechanics, who, armed with a spanner, are attempting to loosen a nut. It may be in an inaccessible spot, so they can’t get any purchase on it. “Force” would do the linguistic job – it’s that kind of thing. Thus in football, when the ball is in an awkward position for a player to kick it properly, the pundits will tell us “he didn’t get enough purchase on it”, which is fair enough, but when it is applied to a straightforward shot, just pull back your leg and swing it forward with no complications, then purchase has stepped out of its sphere of meaning. “He got plenty of purchase on that” just means he hit it well.

Does that mean purchase is about to enter the mainstream of the English language with an expanded portfolio? Could be. Some people pick words up without realising it and use them to make simple things sound more complicated. Like “in excess of” rather than “more than”.

As Jack Charlton might have said, had he written a manual on working in the media: “Keep it simple, pal. If you try to sound fancy, that’s when you make a… what’s the expression… a pig’s ear of it.”

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