Any’ow, guv’nor, would ‘e be wanting ‘is ‘postrophes back?

Miss Marple

Miss Marple - Credit: Archant

One of my birthday presents (yes, I still acknowledge gifts, if not my age) was a set of four British Library crime classics, writes Lynne Mortimer.

I love and devour crime fiction and have read every Agatha Christie, all GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, and the complete canon of Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. For many years I fancied myself a Miss Marple despite being married, having no maidservant, and not living in a village seething with dark secrets like St Mary Mead. But, unlike the amateur sleuths created by the aforementioned authors, I do not find myself called upon to help solve bloody murders.

It is about the unsolvable murder of our beautiful English language that I feel moved to write. Having recently led forth on the evils of some nouns being turned needlessly into verbs and a bit of vice versa, I have looked at the language of Mystery in White (1937), The Cornish Coast Murder (1935), Murder Underground (1934) and the shocking tale of A Scream in Soho (1940).

I’m not so far convinced they are classics except inasmuch as they are dated.

Here is a Cockney speaking in the in the Soho whodunnit, for example. Our hero, the inspector, speaks to one of his informants:

“Any luck?”

A note of dubiousness promptly entered the taxi-man’s voice.

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“That all depends as the way that y’look at it, guv’nor,” he replied. “Any’ow, ‘ere’s what ‘appened. She come out of Verrey’s and ‘is ‘Igh... I mean Sir William, was wiv ‘er, like you said. F’r a minnit I thought ‘e’d spotted me... She kep’ a-lookin’ arter ‘im now and agin and then she ‘ails a taxi...”

If you ever wondered where all the missing apostrophes went, I think we may have found them. No wonder there was a scream in Soho. If you read the dialogue aloud, it has the feel of British films of the same era when posh-voiced actors were called upon to be chirpy cockerneys.

There are also Italian characters in the book. Here’s a brief sample: “He spenda plentee money... Spenda more in two, t’ree hours than alla da rest put together.”

No stereotyping there, then.

The book was written in its time, for its time and you have to plough through swathes of florid prose to find the plot. The vernacular is a rare treat.

So when I whinge about new terms being too readily absorbed into our language, I am certainly not advocating a return to the stilted delivery of the inter-war years or even the diamond-cut English of 1950s’ children’s TV, as, for instance, heard on Watch With Mother. Such innocent days. Who could forget the radio broadcasts of Music, Movement and Mime sessions at junior school. We would put the desks and chairs round the perimeter of the classroom, put on our plimsolls and follow the directions, which often included imaginary props..

On one particular occasion the voice intoned, in perfect BBC English: “Today, children, we are going to play with our balls.” A high tinkle on the piano indicated our balls were on the ceiling, a low rumble and they were on the floor. It seemed amusing to a class of 10-year-olds c.1965... I still find it quite funny in 2015.

Lately, I have had a number of missives on the subject of so-called “verbing”, notably from Martin Newell, poet, author and musician, who writes: “This use of noun-as-verb thing has been driving me mad for at least ten years.

“I believe it was the Yanks who first began ‘trialling’ it. I once had somebody offer to ‘action’ me a memo. I have yet to ‘source’ Fowlers for any kind of solve. ‘Gifting’ is a particular irritation.

“The last straw arrived by second-class camel last week when a record company p.r. ‘mailed’ me to say that ‘the announce’ for a particular new record’s release would be happening the next Thursday.”

John P writes briefly: “My favourite hate ‘.. debate me’.”

David and Sylvia Turner expand the theme: “I would be interested to know your thoughts on the term ‘pre-book’ which is liberally used in so many places today. It intrigues me to know that I can book something before I actually book it!”

Jean writes from East Bergholt: “Have you noticed the words we are losing? Twice has been replaced by two times. And where has the past (progressive) tense gone?

“One hears, ‘she was sat’ or ‘he was stood’. What has happened to sitting and standing?

Well, I’ll be blowed.

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