The Decanter

by Miss Caroline Scott-Robinson

The Decanter first appeared in The English Magazine many years ago. While rather dated in some respects —there are many more recent horrors that it does not deal with — it remains a sound and interesting guide for those who would speak and write pure and perfect English. We hope to add new material to the decanter from time to time.

Oh, hullo. That was quick. You have only just picked up the maggie. I rather thought this title would bring you here first. But I must disappoint you. There is no wine, I fear, in this decanter, only words. It may, however, be as much sought-after as the real thing. You see, it was written in response to requests from several readers for The English Magazine to produce a guide to what is wrong in the modern vocabulary and how to avoid it. The decanter is simply a dictionary for the translation of cant back into English.


Introduction and Principles of Decanting

Some younger readers, having been brought up in a world where "lifestyle" and "ongoing" are used as if they were real words, are nervous about their ability to detect cant and to speak real English without making mistakes. This fear, I should like to say, is often exaggerated. Such readers usually do not use cant — or use it very little, which is easily corrected. Cant does for the most part, feel like cant, even to people quite used to it. Any naturally sensitive person can smell most cant at forty paces.

The possibility of large numbers of innovations (other than those which genuinely describe something which did not exist before) taking a permanent place in our language is, as I propose to show in a later essay [also available here: Is English Changing? — Editress], much less likely than most people seem to think. One of the curiosities of our time is the way in which educated and"serious" speakers and writers adopt immediately and uncritically every passing jargon-term and sub-standard usage without the smallest sign of embarrassment. The inverted commas, which used to represent the mental tongs with which a reputable speaker handled a rather questionable word or phrase — one which, though expressive, was not quite canonical — have almost lost this valuable function among modern writers. The brashest neologisms are used side-by-side and on a basis of casual equality (significant phrase) with the most venerable words in the language.

However, what seems strong, racy and expressive to-day will, for the most part, seem flaccid, dated and absurd to-morrow. In one of Wydham-Lewis's books, for example, the author wishes to describe the sickening brutality of a blow, and, to gain greater force in his description, falls back on what was to him a particularly vivid slang-term from the American films:"He gave him a real sock," he wrote. The expression stands out awkwardly, because Wydham-Lewis does not use a great deal of slang. The purpose of this particular piece was to give a startling force and graphic reality to the description, which at the time, no doubt, it did. Now, only a few decades later, it merely seems weak, ill-placed and rather comic.

Such will be the fate of most of to-day's cant and slang; but because late-twentieth-century writing is so full of it, that writing will date much more rapidly than the writing of most periods. Within a few generations, the prose of most contemporary writers will seem flatter, weaker, more passé and more littered with obscure or risible bygones than the prose of any other period over the past two or three centuries. Modern prose, like the modern motor-car, is constructed according to the principle of built-in obsolescence. — And, considering the worthless and subversive nature of most of its content, we can only be glad that it is so

The jargon of any age reflects the style and spirit of that age. That is why modern cant is so offensive — it reeks with the spirit of the modern world. The loose-mouthed casualness and slick cynicism of the modern type invest each syllable. That, and not any pedantic notion of absolute correctness, is why modern cant must be recognised and avoided.

In some cases, one can identify specific philosophical implications behind the use of cant. For example if one speaks of "having passed through a time of trial" , or even of a "trying business", behind one's words lies a traditional and religious conception of the nature and purpose of life. If one has learned, in similar circumstances, to speak instead of "a traumatic experience", one's words equally convey a philosophical background of assumptions, but now the assumptions are those of the world of modernist "psychology" with all its subversive and anti-traditional implications. One could go on to analyse other phrases and to comment upon the invasion of the language by pseudo-technical, pseudo-scientific and pseudo-commercial jargon, quasi-political sloganese and sub-standard slang, with all that these other things imply for human dignity, sensibility and refined perceptions; yet all this, important as it is, is probably secondary in its effect to the overall atmosphere of modernist degeneration exuded by the typical argot of the modern type.

Necessarily this decanter is not comprehensive. I could not include everything, and, in any case, not being a regular patron of the "mass-media", I am probably only aware of about half the cant that is common currency. Also, it is difficult to know what is worth including. Many of the expressions below are so egregious that it is hard to believe that anyone can use them unless she is being deliberately cringe-making, but I believe that several of them are used in real innocence. Terms like "rip-off","cop-out", "no way", and "freak" (meaning afficionado) I have excluded , because any one who uses them in innocence is in need of intensive remedial care and beyond the help of an essay of this sort.

The great rule for decanting one's vocubulary is to ask oneself, of any given expression: "Could it have been used a hundred years ago? Could Jane Austen have used it? Could Henry James? Could Oscar Wilde? Could even Winston Churchill? " Of course you may sometimes wish to use a phrase which none of these might have used - but you must do so advisedly, knowing exactly why you are using it and what effect you mean to produce.

Any one wishing fully to de-cant her language (or, more positively, to speak or write fine English) should read extensively of good literature written in better times. This will infuse itself into one's soul and increase one's natural sensitivity to language.

Most modern cant has one of three sources:

1) Scientific, pseudo-scientific, technical and business jargon and sub-jargon ("lifestyle", for example, is sub-sociological jargon), including the quasi-jargon of the "mass-media" ( "tailback", for example, is quasi-jargon: a slick, pseudo-technical way of saying "traffic jam").

2) Political and quasi-political propaganda and thought-shaping ( "third world", "sexist" "racist" etc.) and

3) The slang of the mean streets and ghettos of Britain and America as picked up and liberal-sanitised by the "mass-media" . Words like "fix" (as used by Miss Lindy Lynne's B.B.C. announcer in a previous issue) "hassle", "no way" and "rip-off" derive from this source.

A fourth source is the "hippie" cant of the 1960's, giving expressions like "freak", "into", "turn-off" etc. Most of these are dead or dying, but one does encounter them on the lips of those who should know better.

Examine your words for membership of one of these categories and you will have a useful guide for identifying cant. Hazlitt, in his essay "On Familiar Style" (which is, in fact, largely arguing against stiff and over-formal usage) tells us to avoid "falling into any expressions which are debased by disgusting circumstances, or which owe their signification and point to technical or professional allusions." Follow this rule and most modern cant is automatically excluded from your discourse.

A good traditional dictionary (such as the fifth edition of the Concise Oxford or any good pre-war dictionary) is your final check. Cant-words will not appear in these. Cant senses of real words will not be included in the definition. When in doubt look it up.

In many cases an exact synonym for a piece of cant does not exist. This does not mean that the cant word is therefore "necessary". We have, for example, no real English equivalent for the American term "break" (as in "lucky break", "what a break", "bad break", etc), but we do not feel the lack of it. In fact, feeling a "need" for a particular term is an indication that one is being drawn into the world of thought and speech of people who habitually use it. A perceptive illustration of this fact occurs in Chapter III of Shelmerdine [a novel set in a re-civilised mid-21st-century and serialised in The English magazine — Editress], where Miss Langridge writes:

" 'What a bebothering crimp,' Shelmerdine thought again. She had not intended to express herself in that silly slang, but those seemed to be the only words which expressed her exact nuance of miffedness."

In other words Shelmerdine is being moulded. There is nothing necessarily wrong with being moulded. In this case it is doubtless highly beneficial; but in times like these, one must look very carefully to see by whom, or by what, one's language, and therefore one's thoughts and sensibilities, are being shaped.

In many cases, rather than seeking a direct synonym for a cant term, one should try to express the concept differently; nor should one be afraid of a somewhat more eloquent and less short-cutting use of words, which will make your style more traditional and less impoverished; it will also make it more expressive and individual, for, of course, every cant term is, by its very nature, also a cliché. The entry under Skills below gives an example of what I mean.

This decanter, as I have said, is by no means exhaustive. If studying it helps the reader in developing her sensitivity to corruption and purity in our language, it will have done all that I intend.

The Decanter

Terms preceded by an asterisk have a cant sense, or have become cant through over-use by the wrong sort of person but are legitimate words when used properly. Terms in inverted commas are not English words at all, and should never, in any circumstances, be used (we have also used inverted commas for jargon terms which should not be used outside a strictly technical or academic context - though many Romantics will, where humanly possible, avoid many such terms even there). Translations into English follow where necessary

"Attention span" ( 'education'ese):see jargon.

"Basically"essentially, fundamentally. In many cases this word is wholly unnecessary and best left out altogether. — The story of the bongo who, when asked the time, replied: "About half past one, basically," is not far from the truth.

"Body language" : see jargon.

"Buzz-word" : catch-word, vogue-word.

* Caring : I know that Miss Prism is planning a piece on "parts of speech", and this probably belongs there, but I felt that I must include it. Never use "caring" as an adjective. It is groosh-and-a-half.

* Chauvinism means "bellicose patriotism" . Its use in other senses is related to the drivelling slogan-term "male chauvinist" and sounds clammily 'sixties-ish. An anti-feminist recently said of an all-female American organisation "they are completely chauvinist", to which Miss Falconer replied "How jolly! Do they want to bomb Persia or invade Mexico or something?"

*Down to in the senses: a) caused by and b) incumbent upon is cant. In the second sense the term is used instead of up to (as in "it is up to you to do it") by speakers who wish to sound like particularly loose-faced bongo Americans. Up to itself is not fully accepted by all. P.G.Wodehouse wrote: "It was, as the Americans say, 'up to' him."

"Euro": European. It has been argued that the prefix "Euro-" and the adjective "European" do not mean quite the same thing. European means what it has always meant, while "Euro-" means "ugly-banal-bureaucratic-denatured-worthless-European". The distinction is, of course, a true and important one, but it should not be expressed by means of equally ugly and worthless cant.

"Eye-contact" : see jargon.

"Feedback" : see jargon.

Freudese: words like "syndrome", "trauma", "paranoid", "schizophrenia". Unless you have occasion to use these words in their technical, pseudo-medical senses, avoid them altogether.

*Generate" : in modern usage, a pseudo-technicalism which, in many cases, while not strictly incorrect, sounds awful. Do not speak of generating money or ideas or anything of that sort. If in doubt, avoid the word altogether.

Geographical apostrophe, the: e.g. "London's Oxford Street". Avoid. If you think it necessary, say "Oxford Street in London". "London's West End" is a shade more acceptable, because it means "the West End of London", thus the genitive has some meaning. Even so it should be completely avoided.

"Ground rules": is a term used by bongos who, in accordance with modern anarchistic prejudices, do not like to admit that they are imposing rules but nonetheless are. The addition of the prefix ground- is intended to make the rules seem democratic and utilitarian rather than authoritative. We, having no such prejudice, say rules and enjoy it.

"Hassle": harrass(ment), fuss, trouble, difficulty, nuisance, bother, (note how many nuances are fluffed together by the same cant-word).

*He or she (propagandese): see They.

"High profile"/ "low profile": it is not possible to give a simple "translation" of these cant-terms, because they are examples of thought-impoverishing jargon which blurs many shades of meaning in a single colourless expression. "She kept a low profile" can mean anything from "she behaved in a restrained and unostentatious manner" to "she sneaked about town hoping no-one would notice her".

It should be noted that the colourlessness of these phrases is deliberate. They began life in the world of American business and politics, where they were used as euphemisms — or rather neutralisms — for things that, if said in real English, could not help sounding just a shade unpleasant. In their original corporate senses, high profile = "publicity-seeking" and low profile = "secretive".

* Hike (in the sense of raise or increase : verb or noun): raise or increase. The only legitimate use of this word is as a colloquialism for a long country walk or the act of going on one.

*Hopefully (in the sense of it is to be hoped (that): e.g. "hopefully it will arrive to-day"): it is to be hoped (that).

"Hype" (verb or noun): puff. "Puff" in this sense is a splendid Romantic word which indicates about the user the exact opposite of what using cant indicates. Cultivate words of this sort. We must have an essay to help you very soon.

"Inner city": slum, ghetto.

"Input" (technicalese): see jargon.

*Into: in its cant sense, this is another thought-impoverisher. One may suggest interested in or involved in; but the word tramples over many shades: fanciers, afficionados, connoisseurs, faddists, hobbyists, professionals, fanatics and many others are all spoken of as being "into" their subjects.

Jargon: avoid all unnecessary use of words which belong to modernist sociological/ technical/ educational/ psychiatric or other jargon: "peer group", "learning curve","input", "recycle" , "feedback", "underclass", "inner-city", "attention span","pair-bonding", "eye-contact", "body language" ad nauseam. Also avoid sub-jargon, such as "status symbol", "high-risk activity", etc.

"Learning curve": see jargon.

"Lifestyle" (life-style, life style): way of life, mode of life, or sometimes merely style.

"Macho", "Machismo": sub-feminist cant words for sloganising concepts. Machismo is a Spanish word for a Latin phenomenon which does not really exist in English-speaking countries. Use words rather than slogans to criticise unpleasant behaviour. (Pippsies sometimes say butch but that is jinky, not sanctimonious).

"Ms": Obviously one never addresses or refers to any one under any circumstances as "Ms.——". Any temptation to call a woman "Ms——" as a term of ridicule in order to indicate that she is a type must be avoided.

"Mugger", "Mugging": violent robber, brigand, rough, blackguard, assault, violent robbery etc.

Names: No woman, living or dead, should be called by surname alone. A living woman of public note is "Miss" (or "Mrs", or "Dr." etc.)——". A dead one is"Jane Austen" or "George Eliot". "Austen" or "Eliot" is cant of the ugliest and most contemptible order.

A living man of public note should not be referred to as "Smith", but as "Mr. (or Col. or Dr. etc.) Smith". A living politician, however little he may deserve respect, should not be referred to by surname alone; a discourtesy which reflects upon the speaker, not upon the politician. Well-known dead male figures—— e.g. Dickens or Disraeli—— are commonly called by surname alone (though I recall my mother upbraiding me for saying "Conan Doyle"—— he had been dead for only 35 years which did not seem to her a respectful interval).

All this should be well known, but a question I am sometimes asked is whether one can or should refer to, say, Jane Austen as "Miss Austen". Professor H.C.Wyld wrote some decades ago that some upper-class speakers say "Miss Austen". Professor A.C.Ross commented (1956) that in his experience such usage was "either precious or pseudo-intellectual". In my current experience, this form is now only used by some Romantics and as a conscious affectation implying kinship with the past. For example, when Miss Traill, in a review in these pages, referred to Wilkie Collins as "Mr Collins", she was half-affecting to be his contemporary. Some Romantics always adopt this style.

"Ongoing": continuing.

"Overview": broad perspective, synoptic view.

"Pair-bonding" (see jargon): this term may have a legitimate application to animal species. In relation to human beings the only legitimate term is marriage.

"Peer group" (sociologese): see jargon.

*Person: When a servant says "there is a person to see you, madam," she means a person as opposed to a lady or a gentleman. The native habit of calling themselves people or persons on all occasions seems singularly appropriate in this connexion. Obviously you will never use any compound in which person replaces man, e.g. "salesperson", "spokesperson", "craftspeople" (if your teeth are not on edge by now, you are probably reading the wrong magazine). Use -man on all occasions except where a woman is definitely involved, in which case use either -man or -woman (there is no such thing as a chairwoman, there is "madam chairman", and "she was a fine showman" does not seem wrong to me). Other uses of person are less clear cut. It was often used in the past, but not in poetic or high literary contexts-- "good will to all people" sounds flaccid and ridiculous. The best practice now is to look twice whenever you use the words and see whether they cannot reasonably be replaced by man or men, which looks more dignified and reactionary.

I should like to stress, not in deference to modern prejudices, but because it is of concern to me, that I do not see myself as advocating a male-centred language because it appeals to me per se, but because it is not only traditional, but also has the rather charming advantage of underlining the specialness of women and of femininity. This is too large a subject to enter here, but in a democratic climate every one wishes to be "the norm", whereas in a traditional climate distinction is highly valued.

[Clearly this last paragraph refers to strictly Tellurian usage and would not normally be adopted by an Aristasian — Editress]

*Place: the term place used to mean a mental or emotional state is Californian "therapy" jargon of which you have probably never heard. I mention it just in case, because it is so dreadful.

"Racist": The word is racialist, but do not use it in the question-begging propaganda sense of modern journalese.

"Radio": wireless. One may speak of radio waves or radio control (though some prefer wireless control). Radio for wireless — in the sense of a wireless set or wireless broadcasting — is American and lower-class English, predictably adopted by the B.B.C.

*Rail: Mr Partridge writes (Usage and Abusage) "Rail for railroad, railway, is a 'rubber-stamp word' that should be eschewed by self-respecting writers." The adoption of the term by semi-literate bureaucrats does not alter this. One refers to "British Railways" unless one prefers to use the old company names.

*Really: do not use really to mean very: e.g. "it was really good" (this is a recurring cant expression of a certain type of type. Curiously some Pippsies also use the word extensively, but in quite another way: popping it in at the end of any sentence which might be mildly interesting or surprising: "I saw Dolly yesterday. Really." Here, really has a particular, clipped "boop-boop-a-doop" intonation).

"Sexist": Professor A.C.Ross used to say of words like cruet, "the word is non-U because the thing is". Similarly, the word sexist is cant because the concept is cant. This is not to say that certain practices may not be unfair to one sex or to the other. If one wishes to criticize them, one must do so rationally and individually. To apply an ugly, ill-defined, rubber-stamp Americanism, loaded with implicit half-baked assumptions, and, indeed, with an implicit mis-reading of history, is both illegitimate and vulgar.

*Situation: A situation is what is called by modern people "a job". It may sometimes mean a position of affairs, but have a care ("position of affairs" sounds much nicer, anyway). Of course, you will never speak of "an emergency situation" (meaning "an emergency") or of children "in a classroom situation" (meaning "in a classroom"). Elsewhere: if in doubt avoid.

*Skills: over-used and jargony. A pupil recently wrote "if there is no sign that recent moves toward greater inequality are producing anything more than jumped-up barrow boys, that is because the skills of the barrow-boy are the main requirements of modern business and public life." Miss Prism crossed through the word "skills" and marked it "jargon". The pupil's corrected version read "... the attributes and accomplishments of the barrow-boy are the main requirements of modern business and public life." See how much better one writes when one is making one's own phrases rather than depending on prefabricated cant; and how much more solid and unmodern one's prose can become.

*Space: "Personal space" is obviously jargon. Recently we heard of a businessman referring to a trade show as "a space where we can get our products known". The sense seems to be "place", but with an implication of being a little more abstract and sophisticated. The effect is merely stupid and loose-mouthed. Do not talk of "space" unless you mean it quite literally.

"Tailback": traffic jam.

*Take on board: We do not take anything on board unless we happen to be a ship. There is nothing inherently wrong with this metaphor for assimilating an idea or taking a piece of information into account: it just happens to be a grossly overused expression never far from the lips of a large number of dreadful modern types.

Technology: Not exactly cant, but much over-used. For example, Mr. Auberon Waugh recently wrote that no doubt there were sound technological reasons for certain changes in telephone dialling codes. Technical is the proper word in a case like this. There is a strong case for avoiding technology and its derivatives altogether. Use, where possible, inventions, technique, technical means, industrial, innovation(s) etc. Not only does this avoid sounding modern, but it forces you to be much more precise about what you really mean.

*They, their: — a child recently said of a room without a floor: "if some one stepped in there, they would get a surprise, wouldn't they?". This use of they, to mean he or him, is common in children. Under the age of eight it can sound fetching. Over that age, a little under-educated. In an adult it sounds simply moronic. It is used in print by those who presumeably do not know better because "he or she" is so absurdly cumbersome. Remember that man embraces woman. "He or she" is almost never necessary. He suffices and should be used. [again, the Aristasian usage is "she" — otherwise all these strictures remain valid for the Aristasian speaker or writer — Editress]

"Third world": A tendentious and ugly piece of cant whose social and philosophical false implications are too many and too complex to enter into here. If you mean the non-Christian world, say so. If you mean the less industrialised portion of the world, say that. If you mean the non-white world, say that.

Tools: Avoid (or at least treat with extreme caution) calling a tool anything which is not an actual physical implement. Especially in the plural, this word can reek of jargonish cant. We have seen an American book on the education of small children which refers to providing "umbrellas, items of food and other tools" for children "to explore the uses of" (i.e. to play with). I assume no English writer would go this far, but I could be wrong. The more common cant use is to speak of something like the ability to read or a certain critical method as a tool for doing this or that, which is not wrong, but probably best avoided for the rest of this century.

Totally: not really a cant word, but so over-used by types that it can have a modern ring. Prefer wholly, entirely or utterly.

"Underclass": (sloganese): see jargon.

"Upcoming": forthcoming.

"Update": bring up to date or modernise.

"Upgrade": improve or replace with a superior model.

"Upmarket": An interesting example of how cant reflects and promotes the degeneration of ideas. "Upmarket" in places where expressions like "exclusive" or "of high quality" would formerly have been employed. It is a piece of marketing jargon, deliberately devoid of all qualitative dimension and removed from all consideration of social stratification. All that is left is the pluto-democratic question"how much are they paying?"

"Yuppie": nouveau riche, moneyed yahoo etc.

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