Keith Hann: Some language changes are for the better

New words seem to pop up far too frequently in the English language. Keith Hann has his say

You know you are getting old when you become conscious of feeling hopelessly out of your depth in the tide of fresh language that keeps rolling in, to the confusion of those of us still speaking like they did in the olden days.

I continue to raise eyebrows by saying “very well, thank you” in reply to polite enquiries about how I am, rather than the now obligatory “I’m good”.

Somehow, I consistently manage to buy my meat, cheese and produce in pounds and ounces, though I find that it does help to know that a pound equals 454 grams, just in case the young shop worker does not.

The relatively youthful and altogether more modern Mrs Hann is baffled by my insistence on always quoting temperatures in Fahrenheit, even in the depths of winter when numbers beginning with a minus sound so much more exciting.

However, even she was taken aback the other day when she ordered half a dozen items in a shop and the assistant looked at her blankly before venturing: “So, would you like three or four?”

One of the most jarring things to me at present is being told that a pub or train is “rammed”. I would naturally say “packed”, or just “very full”. To me, rams are for servicing ewes, battering down doors or moving water hydraulically.

Surprisingly, the Oxford Dictionary assures me that this fashionable use of “rammed” is a British colloquialism rather than a trans-Atlantic import, as most such assaults on my sense of the right and proper seem to be. However, it appears to offer no clues as to how it originated.

Years ago there was a signpost in the middle of the roundabout at Hipsburn, near Alnmouth, pointing up the hill to “Rly station”. My girlfriend at the time asked how we pronounced this strange place name, observing that it looked more Welsh than Northumbrian.

“Railway” I replied, slowly and coldly, making a mental note that I had been absolutely correct (logically, if not politically) when I recruited her as my PA on the strength of her looks rather than her brainpower.

Now I find myself waging an increasingly lonely battle against the universal advance of the American “train station”, even in my own household. I can see the remorseless logic of the analogy with “bus station”, but it just does not sound right to me (added to which it would completely ruin the scansion of Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound).

Perhaps my ancestors felt equally aggrieved when “railroad” fell out of use in Britain in the mid-19th Century and migrated to America (though our train drivers refer, to this day, not to the track ahead but to “the road”).

When I was a boy the smart green buses shuttling between Croft Street and North Shields were operated by the splendidly named Tyneside Tramways & Tramroads Company, and I am ashamed to confess that it has taken me 50 years to wonder why they used both words.

I have now bothered myself to discover that tramway is the correct name for a track let into a street, and tramroad for one running elsewhere, such as the line that used to run from Wallsend to Gosforth Park. Never say that this column never teaches you anything.

I dare say some changes are for the better. In a nostalgic moment, of which I have many, I recently lashed out a fiver on eBay to buy a 1950s biscuit tin so that my son could learn his alphabet from the same source that I used. Though only up to “F”, since “G is for golliwog” is hardly going to be a sound footing for his education in 2014.

It will pain me when he insists on celebrating Halloween rather than Guy Fawkes night, or becomes excited about his high school prom, as the distinctively English customs and expressions with which I grew up are smoothed away by the relentless progress of globalisation.

Still, at least some form of English looks like being the dominant global language for his lifetime, so things could be worse. On which note, I must dash to the train station. No doubt it will be rammed as usual.

www.blokeinthenorth.com

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