The English Pedant – What did you call me?

The most popular name for girl babies in Trinidad and Tobago is, apparently, Cherelle. That’s a sort of Frenchified version of the British name Cheryl, which was itself an anglicised version of the French Cherie. Confused? It gets worse.

I recently came across an American actress called Aunjanue Ellis, and it took a few seconds of brain contortions to work out that this was a misspelling (or the parents might call it an alternative spelling) of the French word Ingenue, meaning an innocent or naive girl.

Like those tattoos in Arabic that no one else knows the meaning of, there is an air of mystery about this lady’s name, even though I bet she’s sick to death of having to spell it for people.

The giving of wacky names is one of the irresponsible (as opposed to dangerous) abuses of parental power. Any parent knows that thinking of a good name for a baby is often very difficult: you can think of a thousand you don’t want, but not a single one that you really like.

Perhaps that is why, after a few beers, people think it would be acceptable, or even a good idea, to call the poor unborn mite something ridiculous.

Clearly in California, where Aunjanue was born (and it also seems to be the case in the Caribbean) you can name a baby what you like. In other parts of the world, though, the registrars would have put their foot down.

For instance, there’s a British TV miniseries called Doctor Foster (which is brilliant, by the way; only about six episodes but well worth a look), the star of which is Suranne Jones. She’s not Suranne on her birth certificate, though, because the registrar was of the opinion that it wasn’t a real name, so her parents were persuaded to make it officially Sarah Anne, and if they wanted to call her Suranne as soon as they left his office, that was okay with him.

Well, we all have our foibles, and this guy obviously took his job quite seriously. He’d have had a fit, though,  if he’d worked in the West Indies, where making names up is not unusual. Mum has three friends called Camille, Cordelia and Esther? We’ll use bits of each: we’ll call the kid Camcorder.

The friends are Dilys, Sandra and Margery? Why, Disandry, of course. A name isn’t going to kill you, even if the disease might. And anyway, it’s not common in this part of the world and no one knows how to spell it, so where’s the harm?

How different the world would be if royal families were not inherently conservative. Imagine if Prince William and Kate  had exercised their right to use names they heard in St Lucia on holiday, rather traditional ones like George and Charlotte. They’d have been locked up in the Tower of London at the first mention of Prince Jayden and Princess Jordan.

You might think Bob Marley would have gone down the silly-name route, particularly as he had so many to christen – at least 15 “acknowledged” offspring, plus, we are led to believe, a number of unacknowledged ones. But no, the Marley tribe includes  a Karen, a Stephanie and a Julian, while even eldest son Ziggy was actually christened David, but called himself after the David Bowie alter ego Ziggy Stardust, and everyone else went along with it.

My digital encounter with Aunjanue Ellis came at the same time as George Clooney and his wife Amal introduced their newborns, Ella and Alexander, to a quiet round of applause by traditionalists the world over.

What, no Moony  Junie Clooney? No Goliath Hairy Greek-looking  Smoothguy?

After all, even if the registrar objected, they’re a rich and famous couple – and she’s a lawyer – so they could have found a more understanding official.

But how are poor little Ella and Alex going to feel when they meet other celebrity kids such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple, let alone North and Saint, children of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian?

You can hear the Clooney twins whining when they get home: “Moooom! How could you? I sound so boring!”

The world title holders of the parent-imposed name are the children of Live Aid organiser and professional agitator Bob Geldof and his late wife Paula Yates, who gave us Peaches, Pixie and Fifi Trixiebelle, and when Yates went off with singer Michael Hutchence, she quickly produced Heavenly Hirani Tiger Lily.

Interestingly, it didn’t take David Bowie’s son Zowie long to ditch that millstone, plus his Dad’s self-chosen surname, and become plain old Duncan Jones.

Perhaps when this generation of hilariously-labelled children are running the world they will introduce new naming regulations whereby aggrieved youngsters are entitled, at the age of 18, to rename their parents.

Were that to happen, there could well be a split between the complimentary and the insulting. There might also be a 10-year cooling-off period to allow for age-induced understanding and mellowing, because names given in the heat of the moment could be regretted later.  For every King, Hero and Legend Smith there would be a Grumpy, Tyrant and Knowall, while the mothers would be split between Angel, Bestfriend or Precious and Jailer, Prude and Thatissounfair.

 

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The English Pedant – The language of deception

One of the dangers of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is not having the time, not having the courage, or failing in some other way to correct a student’s enthusiastic misunderstanding of a potentially sensitive word.

I was recently challenged by a teenage girl on the meaning of the verb to  cheat. We were on the subject of school and she was telling me how a friend of hers had done much better than she had in a test because he had  smuggled a crib sheet in, placed it in his lap below the desk and was referring to it throughout.

“Cheating,” I said.

“No,” she responded with the smirking satisfaction of having outsmarted the teacher. “That means… you cheat on your boyfriend with another boy. Like you kiss somebody else or…”

She was right in that that word has come to mean what used to be called “being unfaithful”, a term too cumbersome and uncool for the TV  movie generation. It reached epidemic proportions in the US and then, like the grey squirrel, was introduced to other English-speaking areas including the UK and proceeded to take over, sweeping the local population aside.

My explanation that cheating meant generally taking an unfair advantage by devious means was received unwillingly; the student’s understanding of the word had been drummed into her through every dimwitted teenage vampire series and unhappy, unpleasant depiction of romantic liaisons that seeps like glucose into the systems of the young.

She couldn’t offer an alternative single word for the idea of cheating at cards or at school, because there isn’t one, but it was hard for her to accept that the term  could exist without sexual overtones.

If you examine it in that unfaithfulness context, it doesn’t really match the photofit, because the conventional idea of cheating is that the cheat is achieving success in an area where someone or several people are also trying to succeed.

But, like a lazy songwriter who rhymes happen with Clapham, common with forgotten and basement with engagement because they’re close enough if not exact (all these and more in Up The Junction by Squeeze), this one word has come to be accepted as describing the act of having sex with someone other than one’s partner.

Short, puny alcoholic

Coincidentally, other words concerning deception have crept into the language in recent years, by way of internet dating sites. Before the internet existed, dating or “matrimonial” agencies would describe clients in plain English, but since the advent of doing it ourselves, those who feel their physical attributes are not  what is required have become creative. Enter the word “curvaceous”, to describe a woman with an undulating landscape. In the real but unkind world, she is fat, but she’s not going to say that about herself, and there is no conventional adjective that sounds any less critical. Overweight? Negative. Obese? Do you want a slap?

So the choice is between calling your body shape “average” and watching the look on your date’s face when he sees the truth, or using the C word: curvaceous. That or the evocative but ridiculous “volumptious”, a hybrid of voluptuous and scrumptious.

The current favourite is the acronym BBW, which can mean big breasted woman, big beautiful woman or even big black woman. At least your date knows not to expect a stick insect. It’s just a shame that body weight should be an issue at all, but preferences are preferences.

Meanwhile, few men would ever describe themselves as short, so the world must be full of internet dating descriptions claiming “average height”.

And that, when you’re only a shade over 5ft. tall, is cheating. Actually, no – it’s an attempt at cheating through just plain lying.

The English Pedant – And so to Z

iTunes might seem like a strange resource for looking at language, but it’s where I went when I found myself writing about the letter Z. Not only is that the last letter of the alphabet, but it’s probably the most underused.

In English that may be because we often pronounce s as z (was, because etc.) So interchangeable have they become that there is a transatlantic split. The spellchecker on Microsoft Word, being a US national, automatically changes my spelling of organisation to organization, just as it changes centre to center and so forth. Regardless of its being pronounced zee rather than zed, clearly there are more z’s in the USA than in the UK, but it is much more common in Eastern Europe.

So, iTunes. Being a music buff, I have more than 2,000 songs at my disposal, but not one title starts with z. As for artistes, iTunes complicates the search by its insistence on using first names for alphabetical order, but the only two bands in my list are ZZ Top and Zero 7 (whom you’ve probably never heard of and I’ve only ever heard one track, so don’t worry about it).

Thinking about second names, there’s some Frank Zappa among my souvenirs, and The Zombies. You may recall In the Year 2525 by Zager and Evans, but I  never liked that.

Album titles: Zuma by Neil Young. Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust is in there somewhere, but not under z because the album is officially called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

Look up any list you like and you’ll find the same story. Films: Ice Station Zebra. Actors: Billy Zane.

US presidents: Zachary Taylor (1849-50). UK Prime Ministers: a couple of Fitzsomethings but no first letters.

Its rarity makes z an exotic letter. Zen sounds mysterious because of the letter at the start. If it was called Ken, it wouldn’t have the same je ne sais quoi.

It does crop up as a penultimate letter from time to time, though, which is what brought it to my attention. In an article about the disgraced American Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, written by an American, it told how Lochte was “a jock” (that means Scottish where I come from)  and how university students give newcomers to their fraternity a good “hazing”. Adrift on this sea of Americanism I eventually decoded it. A jock is an athletic type, a fraternity house is like a men’s hall of residence and hazing means giving someone a hard time to the extent of humiliation.

Although it is easy enough to find the definition in a dictionary, the origin of this word is unclear, as is the reason for its recent popularity.

Perhaps it is something to do with the word “faze”, which became widespread a few years earlier. To be fazed by something is to be deterred, put off or intimidated and it is often heard  in a testament to someone’s fortitude. “Nothing fazes him”.

And that has nothing at all to do with the word with which it is sometimes confused, phased, which is occasionally used as a verb to describe a gradual process. “Steam engines were phased out in the 1950s.”

Dispensable though those two words are, at least they  breathe a bit of life into the struggling z.

 

The English Pedant – When names become fashionable

Why do certain names catch on while others don’t? A primary school teacher told me a few years ago that suddenly her school, in a poor area in the north of England, was full of Jordans and Kayleighs. Several years on, research has shown that youngsters with such names are far less likely to be at university than people called Josh and Daisy.

Kayleigh, of course, can be traced straight back to the rock band Marillion and their huge hit single in the early 80s. But Jordan? Why?

There was no influential man with that as a first name at around Kayleigh time, and the Scottish footballer Joe Jordan was hardly a cult figure. Michael Jordan? He’s American and a basketball player, so he wasn’t all over the papers and magazines and broadcast media in the UK.

Josh and Daisy are simply names that went out of fashion for a few generations and were then reassessed and popularized. It’s the same with Daniel and Joseph and Rebecca and Rachel. Not many of those were christened in the 1960s and 70s, but suddenly they had a revival, mainly shortened to Dan and Joe and Becky.

These are all biblical names, which is perhaps strange in these unbelieving times, but you can bet your life most of the young parents have no idea what the namesakes were well known for in the Bible. It is probably just coincidence that the current list doesn’t include such catchy names but dubious characters as Jezebel (seductress, murderer, worshiper of idols) and Delilah (cut off Samson’s hair as he slept lovingly in her lap and thus removed his extraordinary strength).

Muslims are more than happy to call their children Mohammed, and the word Islam crops up in names (Cat Stevens, the English singer-songwriter, converted and was known as Yusuf Islam, although he dropped the last name recently, perhaps because it raises the subject of religion when it doesn’t need to be raised).

Why are there quite a few Jesuses  (pronounced hayzoose) in Spanish-speaking countries but none in English-speaking ones?

Perhaps it feels blasphemous or appears to be tempting fate in the UK, US, Australia etc. to call a child after one considered perfect and who was crucified at the age of 33.

Even the clunky old grandparent names such as Mabel and Ruby have undergone a bit of a revival, with the male side not quite so keen, but the occasional Walter and Wilfred is creeping in.

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan was responsible for a spike in popularity for the name Wendy, which came to the author’s attention when his young daughter couldn’t pronounce “friendly”.

Several years of living in the Caribbean have shown me that names don’t have to be traditional and can be completely made up. Anything that sounds good is fair enough out there, while in the UK,  registrars and ministers are likely to object. The English actress Suranne Jones, for instance, who made her name in the soap Coronation Street and recently won awards for Doctor Foster, was christened Sarah Anne because the minister politely informed her parents that Suranne wasn’t a real name.

The name-pedants’ vigilance hasn’t stopped Jonathan being spelled Jonathon, perhaps because people are used to seeing the word marathon. And talking of the Olympics,  the same contingent must be bracing themselves for a flurry of requests, such as to call boys Trayvon, as sported by American athlete Trayvon Bromell. Then again, the world’s most celebrated athlete, Usain Bolt, hasn’t had his name lifted by hosts of adoring fans. Nor have Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Usain Smith? Trayvon Carruthers? Zinedine Johnson? You just never know.

The English Pedant – Mutants in our midst

It often happens that getting a phrase wrong comes about because people have half-thought  about something, but not pursued the issue to its real conclusion. Such an example is  the now-epidemic “off my own back”.

It means doing something yourself, using your initiative and not involving others. The fact that it used to be “off my own bat” is neither here nor there (almost). Back works just as well and in fact probably looks the more likely of two options which both seem rather odd.

One theory is that the phrase comes from cricket, a game in which a bat is used to strike the ball, although it is possible for runs (points) to be scored without the leather touching the willow. It’s an unsatisfactory explanation, largely because if it really originated there, it wouldn’t need the “own”. You can’t score runs off someone else’s bat. Even if you’ve borrowed one, it is essentially yours because it is the one you’re using.

On the other hand, “off your own back” implies the effort of carrying something, and “own” fits slightly better there, but again, it’s not a clear, unarguable solution.

It’s an expression that has established itself somehow and , even though no explanation is totally convincing, we know what it means, and only a pedant would take the time/waste the effort required to analyse it.

A much clearer case of incorrect use is “most amount”. John is in the lead because he has the most amount of points. No he doesn’t. He has the greatest amount of points, or perhaps  the largest amount. You can hear the cogs creaking in people’s brains as they scan the list of superlatives: largest, biggest, heaviest, blah blah blah, can’t decide. So the generic one, “most”, it is.

When you scrutinise it, though, if you’re going to use “most”, why use “amount” at all? John has the most points. Cricket has the most strange expressions of all sports (it has).

Curiously, this appears to be a modern mistake. It wasn’t common until quite recently, so why has it crept in? Could it be that modern scourge, the ease with which we can communicate publicly? The fact that someone only has to say it once on TV or online and it infects the entire English-speaking world? Incidentally, to describe this phenomenon we use the term “going viral” with no regard for the fact that viruses are overwhelmingly considered to be bad. Nobody celebrates catching a virus, so why should videos, jokes, verbal expressions etc. be said to go viral in a good way?

Now that the English football season is underway (after the briefest of intervals), there is an amusing mistake to be enjoyed occasionally when someone describes a player with a particularly skillful way of kicking the ball. A commentator who knew what he was doing once referred to a player’s “cultured left foot”, and people wishing to repeat it, but who had forgotten the exact word, fished around in the area of their vocabulary that contains “cultured”. What they found in that section was a group of words on the theme of learning, and so came the “educated left foot”.

It tends to be the left foot, perhaps because most of us are right-footed, so it is more remarkable to see a left leg performing sporting works of art.

So there you are: a little tapas plate of expressions that are making their way in the world of the English language. Odd, slightly misshapen, maybe mutant, but hoping to slope along with a hood up and eventually be accepted by the authorities.

The English Pedant – Mispronunciation? Blame it on Elvis

Aaron

If your name is James Brown and you are routinely referred to as James Ground, does that bother you? If enough people do it, do you accept that that’s what the world wants to call you, and get it changed officially?

This issue has followed me throughout my adult life. My surname is Morvan, which is pronounced like Morgan. (Actually, it’s a French name and should really be pronounced in the French way, whereby the an at the end sounds roughly like oh, with no trace of the n. But that’s another story.)

Everybody can pronounce Morgan, so what is so difficult about putting a v in there instead of the g and retaining the overall sound?

But no, for some reason, people feel the ending should be stressed as much as the beginning, and that the name should sound like more than.

Being as I am, I have spent much more than half my life correcting people. After all, it’s my name.

The next generation, though, is not united in this. I have a nephew, now in his thirties, who not only accepts the mispronunciation, but apparently uses it himself.

There are other examples of this among famous people. The American statesman and general,  Colin Powell, must be the only Colin in the world whose name is rendered as coe-lin.

Of course, there is a difference between the American pronunciation, (kah-lin) and the British one (where the o is pronounced with a narrower mouth, somewhere between ah and oe).

In fact, Powell’s own story is that he was christened Colin with the traditional American pronunciation, but during World War Two there was a US air force pilot who became famous, and he pronounced his name Coe-lin, which apparently was an Irish influence. So, as Powell said in an interview on Fox News Talk Radio, “My family call me Colin and my friends call me Coe-lin”.

In the case of the legendary cricketer Sir Ian Botham, (boe-tham) the change in pronunciation from the obvious one, sounding almost like bottom, was probably sanctioned by the family at some point because, in the UK, bottom is a word that makes people titter. And botham sounds close enough to cause teasing in the playground.

It’s a relatively common occurrence, given our predilection for toilet humour. The famous house of Cockburn, producers of port wine, is pronounced Coburn, like James, the actor. The capital of Grand Turk, an island where I once lived, is Cockburn Town, and the pronunciation was explained to me by a grown woman as “Spelled c-k, pronounced coe,” thereby avoiding the dangerous word cock.

One name that has changed wholesale in recent years is Aaron, which, in the UK, used to be said as Airon. Suddenly, it isn’t like that anymore. Now it’s like arran. And the confusion is all Elvis Presley’s fault.

The path of this one is very complex, because it seems there was originally a Hebrew name Aharon, plus the English, Scottish and Irish Aron, Arun and Aran.

All of them were pronounced Arran, and so it remained until Presley was born. Elvis had a stillborn brother, Garon, which was supposed to be said as Gairon, and the boys’ parents pronounced The King’s middle name, Aron, to match that of his late brother.

Presley himself added the extra a officially.

To confuse matters, a typical American pronunciation of the ar sound does come across like air, so even if they were saying Aaron like barren, it comes out as bairren.

How it came back to the original in the UK is unclear, but that’s what happened.

So, if your name is Aaron and you have a definite idea of how it should be pronounced, you should be on the side of tradition – depending on when you consider tradition to start.

 

The English Pedant – Why is it so hard to say thank you?

Something most of us are taught as children is to say please and thank you. It’s a matter on which there can be no discussion, certainly  in the UK, and those of us brought up with it find it hard to understand why others don’t do it.

Even Americans, most of whom would consider themselves polite, will say to a bartender, “Gimme a Scotch,” while we wouldn’t dream of it. We’re the customer, so we’re in charge and if we want a Scotch, the guy would have to have a very good reason not to give it to us. And yet we will dress the request up with ingratiating words. “Could I have  Scotch please,” or “I’d like a Scotch, please.” Say “Gimme” in that way to a British bartender and you’re asking for trouble.

We can’t even say “I want,” because that is supposed to be rude. We have to say “I’d like”. In the UK there is a saying: I want doesn’t get. It’s hard to explain this to speakers of another language, for whom saying “I want…” is a simple statement of fact.

Some language students are grateful for this advice, while others are slightly offended that you should think so badly of them. But it has to be done.

It is even harder to convince them that when they decline an offer, they have to thank the offerer for thinking of it. Thus when someone asks, “Would you like a cup of tea?” they should say “No thank you.” To just say no is plain rude in our book, but not in theirs, and some will go along with it for a while, but stop doing it at some point. I have even been told, “You know I mean it politely, so do I have to do it every time? To you?”

Well I’m sorry (excessive British politeness there), but yes, you do.

At some point in the last 20 years, as formality has been steadily eroded, saying thank you has been left isolated, like a rock left exposed by the retreating tide. And it has made certain people uncomfortable, feeing like a sap for behaving in such an obsequious way.

This is particularly prevalent among 20-something British men, naturally programmed to show themselves as tough and not yet ready to accept that toughness is sometimes best expressed by humility.

These people can’t say “Thank you” for anything – not for ordinary things, anyway. They might summon the decency in the event of being saved from drowning, but in normal circumstances, no. And yet the voice of their mother is in their head. Be polite.

So what comes out is “Cheers”. This is the British greeting uttered when we are given an alcoholic drink. We raise the glass and say “Cheers”.

So the young man who can’t bring himself to use the proper words can say “Cheers’ without losing face, without showing weakness in front of his peers.

“Cheers for that,” he will say.

Don’t mention it, mate. Thank you for having the guts to say even that.

The English Pedant – Lady Mondegreen and Jimi Hendrix

Mondegreen.

That is a word we don’t hear every day. It means a phrase that has been misheard and misinterpreted and it was first described in an article by the American writer Sylvia Wright in 1954, based on an ancient Scottish ballad, The Bonnie Earl of Moray, in which it is written:

They have slain the Earl of Moray
And laid him on the green

Like many such old ditties, this is a tale of intrigue and skulduggery among the nobility; in this case it is about the murder of the Earl of Moray by his rival the Earl of Huntly.

Lady Mondegreen enters the story as a mishearing, but fits in nicely and just makes us wonder who she was and what her relationship with the Earl was.

Unlike the mythical lady, the mondegreen has relatives. Malapropisms, for instance, are inadvertent uses of words which sound very similar, such as when someone gets specific, but tells you this “pacifically”.

In a gratifying justification of the right of 21st century people to be included in such erudite studies, the mishearing of lyrics in a song is called soramimi. Originally this Japanese word was applied to words wrongly translated from another language, which is easily done, with our imperfect language skills, grabbing at something we think we recognize.

But when it is English speakers getting the wrong end of the stick from another English speaker speaking (or singing) English, our only excuse is that pop and rock singers don’t always enunciate as we would like.

One example that perplexed me as a teenager finding my feet in the minefield of the adult world was when Jimi Hendrix, on his second single, Purple Haze, seemed to sing, “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy”. It was the sky he was kissing, in fact.

Many years later, the British soul singer Paul Young, lamented:

Every time you go away
You take a piece of meat with you

Or so it seemed, anyway. If he really had sung meat instead of me, we still wouldn’t have heard the t. Sometimes we have to use our intuition.

As a telecoms engineer once told me, we often can’t hear the s on the end of a word, but our knowledge of the language fills in the blanks for us.

That is why language teachers sometimes have to stress things in an unnatural way and then explain to students that you don’t, in fact, make a sound like a punctured tyre and you can’t really hear it but you have to imagine it’s there.

It’s not just English speakers, though. Spanish speakers have this habit of not pronouncing the end of a word. They will talk about the interne rather than the internet, because we know what they mean, so why go to all the trouble of putting the t on the end?

The recorded announcements on the Caracas Metro in Spanish-speaking Venezuela used to sound as if they were deliberately trying to fool me when, as I listened intently for where to get off, they would take all the consonants out of Parque Carabobo, so what you got was ar-eh arao-o. You get it in the end, but it doesn’t make life easy.

Back at the song lyrics, there are websites devoted to this stuff, but not all of them know where to draw the line. I personally doubt that anyone really thought Jefferson Starship sang “We built this city on sausage rolls” or that Bob Dylan informed us “The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind.”

You could amuse a nine-year-old with that, but come on…

I am, though, perfectly willing to accept there were medical students who thought they heard “The girl with colitis goes by” (rather than kaleidoscope eyes) during Lucy in The Sky with Diamonds. It’s largely a matter of what we’re expecting to hear.

If you’ve got a good one, please leave a comment.

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.”

The English Pedant – The difficulty of keeping it simple

Sounding like a foreigner is less desirable than ever in these days of immigration and resentment. Even if we look different from most people (which obviously we can’t do much about), a good grasp of the language can go a long way towards getting us accepted.

One of the most frustrating things about teaching English to people who already speak another language is when they ask you why a certain thing happens and all you can say is “It just does”.

Take verbs, for instance. A long-distance Dutch student of mine, who still sends me her academic essays etc. to check before she hands them in, recently forgot how to make the simple past tense of English verbs. She had fallen back into an old habit of using “did” with the infinitive. I did walk to college. I did speak to my tutor.

You know what she means. You know she’s telling you it was in the past, but that is not the point. She’s getting it wrong, and that means she sounds less intelligent than she is. And more to the point, she sounds more foreign, and one of the chief gripes of the less tolerant is when people don’t learn to speak their language.

This girl – let’s call her  Sophie – came to me in Suriname when she was applying to American universities and wanted to give the impression (the correct impression, as it happens) that she could slot right in with a class of American students, understand the lecturers and do the work. She is probably the most advanced student I’ve ever had – and a nice girl, too. It’s not just students who can enjoy or not enjoy a class; the teacher is giving up 90 minutes of his life for it too. It’s a lot better all round if both parties enjoy the time.

Anyway, Sophie moved back to Holland – didn’t go to America, but continued studying in English – and somehow forgot about past tenses.

I dug out some material, hoping to explain it to her in a flash and send her some files, but of course it’s not that easy. There are regular verbs and irregular verbs. With a regular verb you just add ed or d to the infinitive. I walk, I walked. I like, I liked.

But you immediately trip over irregular ones. I run, I ran. I speak, I spoke.

And there isn’t a simple answer to the question of why it is like that, apart from “It just is.”

If you look at the English language as something to be improved and simplified, that is certainly somewhere to start. Get rid of the irregularity. I run, I runned. I sit, I sitted. Why not?

All languages have their seemingly pointless aspects that confound the non-native speaker. Look at French, with its insistence on the adjective reflecting the gender of the noun. Haut and bas (high and low) have to be haute and basse if the noun they are describing is feminine. Everything is either le or la, and you sound like a dolt if you get it wrong. To the outside observer, it’s an unnecessary complication.

In German they’re not even happy with two genders: they have masculine, feminine and neuter: der, die and dass.

Who needs it? What difference does it make? In English we have been getting along with just plain the for centuries. Why don’t all countries address the quirks of their language and give the foreigners a chance?

There will probably never be a common global language, largely due to our overriding nationalism and the sheer practical issues that would have to be tackled – the trillions of words and billions of documents to be translated.

It’s been tried, but with little success. Esperanto was invented in 1887, based on European languages, and while it is claimed that some 2million people speak it, I have never met anyone who does; have you? If something similar were attempted today, it would take hundreds of years to develop, with law suits flying around the world as China demanded to have its principles taken into account, and then smaller parts of China spoke up for themselves, along with Russians, Tibetans and Indians, Swedes, Slovaks and Somalis.

The only thing that would make it happen is if the Earth was facing invasion by another planet and the military commanders needed to be able to communicate  quickly and easily. There would need to be delaying tactics while the assembled brains of every country got together and thrashed it out, and then mass teaching took place everywhere.

But you know what would really happen? English speakers and Spanish speakers would squabble and remain unreconciled, while the Mandarin speakers quickly learned how to say “Hang on, what about us?”

There would be no point in having a global vote, because everyone would just vote for themselves, so you might as well just count the people. But that would be so open to fraud that it would have to come down to a simple lottery, live on TV across the world. There are two short straws and one long one. The representatives of the three options step forward one by one and continent-wide gasps throw the planet off its axis so that it plummets towards its aggressor, which has manoeuvred itself  dangerously close.

And then bang! The universally understood term, goodbye. Auf wiedersehen. Ciao. Au revoir. And a couple of symbols in Mandarin.