Consider “omnishambles”, OUP’s word of the year

This year the Oxford University Press has named “omnishambles” as the “word that best reflects the mood of the year”. The OUP’s lexicographer Susie Dent said the word was chosen for its popularity as well as its “linguistic productivity”.

Like The Guardian‘s Alison Flood, I rather like the idea of a word of the year.

I like it because people too often forget the key lesson they learnt in English at school, that words are not only conduits of information, but also objects in their own right. This forgetfulness is the reason that we tend to read blog posts not poetry, news articles not essays.

We have become habituated to words as clear vessels for our inner thoughts, imagining that we can use a word effectively without considering its definitions, etymology, and various functions.

Already one can see people relishing attention on our means of communication. Don’t the phrases “linguistic productivity” and “aesthetic enthusiasm” have a pleasure of their own? And perhaps the more we nurture imaginative new forms of expression, the greater their relative growth will be.

This is lazy. And it’s also unenjoyable. It means we don’t attend in our daily life to what George Orwell calls “aesthetic enthusiasm”, or “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another”.

So while everyone has a little giggle at the crowning of a word of the year, and others join in with linguistic abnormalities (a comment on The Guardian’s article reads “As for omnishambles, it rolls off the tongue nicely but we already have a wonderful word that covers it: clusterfuck”) I think something more serious is happening: people are talking about words again.


Consider the function of writing competitions

Writing competitions are motivating. There is something about an impending deadline which will empower us to work more efficiently and imaginatively than if we were given our whole lives to write something.

This perhaps agrees with the oft-touted advice that budding writes will puzzle over: Just write! Just write a lot, often, and don’t stop!

The results can be rewarding. I was recently shortlisted for the Foyles Bookshop/Negative Press London Still flash fiction competition, which is the best news I’ve had all month. And I am also writing an essay on young people for the Financial Times/Bodley Head long form essay competition. (Deadline 18th November, if you are interested.)

Anyway, there are loads of competitions about, some of which are free to entry. Another literary blogger Rich Lakin (also shortlisted for the Still competition) mentioned these two competitions to me, and I think I’ll give them a go. Why don’t you?

The Telegraph’s weekly travel writing competition, Just Back – £200 for each winning entry

The Guardian’s yearly travel writing competition – win a holiday

Consider “the real truth”

The Frustrated Grammar Pedant award was granted to my office neighbour this week. There was fire in his eyes and blood in his cheeks when a client emailed him the phrase:

“I think this reveals a real truth . . .”

Pursing his lips as if to restrain an outpouring of spiteful bile, he said to me:

“Jonny, does the phrase “a real truth” make sense, or is a truth by its very nature real?”

“A truth is by its very nature real, Paul,” I said. “A truth is by its very nature real.”

We encounter tautology too frequently, I thought at the time, allowing Paul’s generous resentment to infect me. I also thought that it is so much worse when the words in question are pieces of guff in the first place. The phrase “I think this reveals a truth” is just utter word-rot anyway.

Then, in the various rifling through of online news articles which I get paid to do, I noticed that a grocer from the USA has released a healthy own-brand range. It is called “Simple Truth”.

I nearly vomited.

Why do people feel the need to stick an adjective before vast philosophical concepts such as “truth”? And who is Kroger the Grocer to say whether “truth” is simple or complicated? Personally I think that truth must be pretty fucking difficult or I would have worked it out by now. Lies and deceit, on the other hand, now they come to me like breathing and drinking. Should I not shop at Kroger due to philosophical differences?

But, then, as our tempers simmered, I thought:

What the hell, the  concepts of “truth” and “reality” and “simplicity” are fallacies! That being the case, why not use a whole adjectival string to emphasise one’s point?

I still think that this idea reveals a real, profound, genuine, authentic, actual, simple truth.


Incidentally, Collins English Dictionary defines a “pedant” as “a person who relies too much on academic learning or who is concerned chiefly with insignificant detail”.

I find that insulting. One can never be too right when it comes to using language precisely. And now I have to deal with the thought that the dictionary itself is a subjective entity, itself open to accusations of untruth and unreality. Shite.

CONSIDER the role of perspective in the debate on vegetarianism

The debate on vegetarianism is often truncated by the irreconcilable nature of two stalwart perspectives: the meat-eater and the vegetarian.

The vegetarian sats to the meat-eater: “I’m not going to eat meat because there is no reason to, and you shouldn’t eat it either.”

The meat-eater says to the vegetarian: “I’m going to eat meat because there’s no reason not to, and you should eat it too.”

As you can infer from these two images, the only way to progress from this stalemate is to introduce a third perspective, like a third player introduced during an impossible chess endgame would reinvigorate play. This is the key player in the battle between meat-eater and vegetarian: animal.

Slavov Žižek can provide our means to this third perspective. In his exegesis of Hegelian philosophy and the modern West, at this talk, he makes a salient point about how considering the object’s perspective invariably informs the subject’s ideology:

The question to be raised is not what this philosopher can tell us, but the opposite one: what are we and our contemporary situation in his eyes?

Although Žižek is making a particular point about historiography,  I think that the same kind of exercise in empathy – that is, the imagining of another perspective to inform one’s own ideology – can be used for our vegetarianism debate. Although instead of emancipating dead philosophers from objects to subjects, we are doing so with necessarily silent animals.

Here’s the fun bit.

Imagine dining out at a steakhouse with a three guests: a meat-eater, a vegetarian, and a cow. While the carnivore would salivate, and the vegetarian would remonstrate, what would the cow do and think?

It would surely be a existential challenge for the cow to read a menu of its species’ organs and appendages. And then to have the desired parts delivered on a platter to the communal table as the main actor in a culinary theatre. It would be a moment of uncanny self-awareness which no human has ever felt, to consider one’s body functioning as something other than a vessel for its own promotion, as a means to another’s pleasure.

It would seem sinister that the world has created a vast infrastructure with which to feed its people on your body, delivering you from field through plant to plate. It would seem macabre to the cow that there are tens of other restaurants on this street, hundreds in this town, and millions on this planet all delivering your kind to others, better off dead than alive.

It is my suspicion that most vegetarians perpetuate their ideology through the reinforcement of this feeling of the uncanny or bizarre. It acts as an unconscious kind of empathy. Your anecdotal proof is this: a vegetarian friend of mine says sometimes that when she looks up and sees flocks of pigeons or crows flying from building to building, she realises how weird it is that we share a world with them. We have the streets; they have the rooftops.

This third perspective doesn’t answer the debate, nor freshen up the stalemate. But perhaps through giving a voice to a silent object, it can complicate what is essentially a simple difference of opinion.

CONSIDER the term “middlebrow”

Practical Criticism #7: Use of “middlebrow” as a derogatory description for literature has slipped out of our vocabulary, though it is still in our dictionaries. It is an inevitable fate for many adjectives and nouns that they will pass into and out of common circulation within a generation.

100 years ago, for a generation of modernists whose literary authority relied upon “highbrow” esotericism, to have a work called “middlebrow” was a curse of the highest order. Look at the avant-gardism of the 1920s’ seminal works: James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. What we have of decade’s literature is some of the militantly anti-“middlebrow” writing there has ever been.

In fact, Virginia Woolf wrote to the editor of The New Statesman to complain that he had omitted the word “highbrow” from a review of her latest book. To lump her in with the “middlebrow” was to call her a “petty purveyor” with more money than taste. Middlebrow men simply plundered expensive art at auctions in order to hang on their walls and stack on their shelves something that could fill their void of good taste. The middlebrow were neither thinkers like the highbrow, nor doers like the lowbrow, but pursuit-less and shallow: interested only in fame, power, money, and social standing. They used literature as a means, books as props, rather than as an end.

Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s Husband, made a similar criticism in his short book Hunting the Highbrow (1927) – no doubt the two of them had some cracking chats over the dinner table! This book is an anthropologist’s account of the bizarre species of man known as the “middlebrow”. Such creatures he further categorised:

  1. Those men who don’t have the intellect to appreciate highbrow literature,
  2. Those who are too vain to accept art as anything other than a tool of social betterment,
  3. Those who can never learn “taste” even if they tried.

Ah, “taste”! you may have noticed that word appearing several times so far in this post. It is another mouldy morsel which we no longer chew upon. This was a divisive word in the early 20th Century, and it was wed to the conception of “brow”.

But does it mean anything that we longer have “middlebrow” and “taste” in our verbal arsenal? Well, we do have our own versions of them. We now use “middlebrow”in a positive senseas “trashy”, “chick-lit”, and “summer reading”. We call art which we know requires little “taste” a “guilt pleasure”.

“Highbrow art” has, I think, now become a derogatory term. We would call it “smug” (Salman Rushdie), “self-indulgent” (Julian Barnes), and “obscure” (Tom McCarthy).

Thus we have seen a complete reversal in literary appreciation between 1922 and 2012: “highbrow” has become a critique not a point of pride, “middlebrow” has become those cheerier “guilty pleasures” which we know we shouldn’t like. Indeed the reading of literature has become a specialised task undertaken only by university students and scholars, whereas it had been the place of every man.

The last I heard of “taste”, too, was in 1979 when Pierre Bourdieu published his sociological study Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. After that? Well, the highbrow among us read too much Foucault, Derrida, and Zizek to worry about the middlebrow. And the middlebrow too this indifference to mean free rein to dive into Dan Brown and Jilly Cooper unashamed.

I don’t mean to be as scathing as I sound. On the contrary, this switch in meaning is okay. It maybe suggests that our culture now is more stable than it was in the 1920s – before two world wars, indeed – and so we have no need for artistic revolution. But Practical Criticism demands that we at least note the coming and going of these trends and definitions so that we can inform the next generation, indefinitely, that ‘way back when’ we saw things very differently.

CONSIDER the impact of technology on generosity

Recently I read an article which said that today’s technology-native generation want access rather than ownership.

To information, to music, to gadgets, to every accessible entity.

I viewed an example of this on the train yesterday. Two late-teenage girls were talking about an acquaintance of theirs who was trying to ingratiate herself into their close friendship group. To paraphrase (names have been invented):

Mary: Have you seen the emails that Sophie’s been sending around recently?

Laura: No, why?

Mary: You have to check your emails, it’s so awkward and weird.

Laura: What do you mean? What’s she been saying?

Mary: You know she really wants to go to Glastonbury and Newquay with us this summer, well she’s been sending us links to loads of YouTube clips and gossip articles.

Laura: Oh god that’s so embarrassing.

Mary: I know. And she says stuff like “Hi guys, have you seen the worlds cutest puppies? They’re sooo funny!” and then loads of kisses.

Laura: That’s so blatant.

This conversation should demonstrate one function of an access-focussed culture. In terms of social interaction, generosity turns from a system of monetary exchange to one of qualitative provision. That is, instead of living out the equation Money = Flowers = Wife’s temporary happiness, a man might send her a link to a news article he hopes she is interested in with the vaguer aim of improving their relationship.

In the case given above, where historically Sophie may have purchased ownership of jewellery, food, music, etc for Mary and Laura’s friendship group, now she sends them knowledge of—and access to—chosen information which is simultaneously available to others.

There is an added challenge for the giver in this new realm. The object of technological generosity is much less defined, and thus Sophie must take more care to choose the right link, clip, or article. Seeing as there is no monetary value to the gift, it becomes solely a prize of appropriateness: whether the gift conveys access to highly desirable information, or not.

If successful, this provision creates a far more intimate relationship because it clarifies the parties’ mutual interests. If unsuccessful, it fails dramatically because there is no other value attached to it but the personal.

Sadly for Sophie, her information is not desirable to the beneficiary because it too blatantly assumes an antiquated system of exchange: Sending links = Invitation on holiday.

In this sense, is the new generation not more generous and thoughtful than its ancestors?

CONSIDER what defines a cultural icon

Last week it was announced that Jamie Oliver, who is “already a TV star, best-selling author and global nutrition campaigner,” has now “been commissioned by the BBC to make a new drama series starring David Tennant.”

This is only one example of an emerging celebrity trend of multimedia profligacy, and, I hope to prove, an exercise in superhumanism which can be traced back via the 16th-century’s Francis Bacon et al to the professional eclecticism of Classical Greece.

Humour me.

There are some cultural icons from across these eras who accomplish projects and complete roles well beyond their day’s allowance: actor, author, journalist, model, screenwriter, poet, comedian, television presenter.

Take Stephen Fry: actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, poet, comedian and television presenter.

Take Jamie Oliver MBE: TV star, best-selling author (only out-sold by J K Rowling), global nutrition campaigner, restaurant owner, now the “movie mogul” at the head of Fresh One TV Production Company. Oh, and he’s a chef! Jamie+Oliver

Take Francis Bacon (1561-1626): philosopher, Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England, scientist, jurist and author.

Take Gaius Julius Caesar (100BC-44BC): Dictator of the Roman Republic, soldier, statesman, latin prosodist, inventor of the modern-day calendar.

I have neglected millions of other examples here. What these few demonstrate is that aspirational cultural figures are celebrated for occupying the position of eclectic talents. The point stands that modern Western culture is intrigued with the notion of superhumanism: the all-consuming public wants to hear about personal feats of activity and achievement, and the media wants to portray them.

Take the language of excess, of immense scale, with which Jamie Oliver’s foray into production is reported by the London Evening Standard. Jamie is “already a …” but “now a … too”. Also,

(He is) said to be worth £106m through his empire, which includes 27 branches worldwide, plus branded merchandise and book sales topping £100million.

Indeed it is the command of an “empire” which defines our modern celebrity superhumans: it is their “worldwides”, their “£100 millions”, which cast them in the same mould as Greek Caesars and British Lords before them. These empires are not grown like ivy across a wall, but like a cage netting its breadth over vast expanses all in one: the superhuman has a holistic touch.

You see, in the 16th Century, Francis Bacon’s education was holistic, it embraced and taught intelligence of–, well, of everything. A great philosopher was a great politician was a great scientist because he had one key attribute: he was a great thinker.

He understood that the means by which lines of Chaucer achieved their beauty were the same means by which the statesman magnetised the crowds in his favour. He understood that these were the same means by which ideas of self could be developed, and by which the patterns among the stars would be decoded, the friendships between chemical elements in laboratory tubes logged.

Sadly or happily, the superhuman is no longer educated holistically. His or her finishing school is in the TV green room, the agent’s lounge. Somewhere between Stephen Fry and Jamie Oliver the acceptable means to success went from boarding and Oxbridge to the local comprehensive and 5 GCSEs of C and above. The goal for the superhuman now is bound in realising his or her life holistically against the advice of an education in segregated classes and categorised lessons.

That is the true victory of the modern-day superhuman. It is escape from the plains of mundanity.

The all-consuming public which flicks past such stories in papers don’t have that accolade: its members have one job, one name, one place to be. But, for them, the knowledge that some people do achieve variously, excellently, and superhumanly, may be enough. These are icons who have their superhuman origins set in gold upon podiums millennia ago; through them we can see the vast expanse of human potential.

And so, they may be enough.