Stale words on the way we speak

Everyday Language and Everyday Life
July 23, 2004

When Richard Hoggart's pioneering book The Uses of Literacy was published 50 years ago, it was hailed as opening up a new perspective on questions about language. Agree with it or not, the new perspective seemed worth taking into account. Admittedly, to reach it you had to wade through quagmires of sociological slurry about "culture" and "the working class"; but the book's second half, which contained most of the incisive comments on the popular press, the weekly family magazines and the cheap sex-and-violence novels, made you think twice about the supposed universal benefits of reading and writing.

The trouble with Hoggart's latest contribution to the discussion is that he still seems to be writing for that same readership of 50 years ago. "Class", he tells us sententiously, is "above all a state of mind". If so, his mind seems to be stuck in prewar gridlock. The references to the media are updated, but the message is much the same as before and the author is still cultivating that tedious man-of-the-people persona to deliver it. He does not seem to realise that readerships have moved on in the intervening half-century. They no longer believe in populist abstractions such as "everyday language", let alone "everyday life". A book with such phrases in its title nowadays suggests tongue-in-cheek social satire.

The linguistic basis for Hoggart's current reflections is a list of expressions he recalls from his youth in northern England. They include "as safe as houses", "letting sleeping dogs lie", "shutting one's eyes to something", "having a good run for your money", "keeping the wolf from the door" and many more. Hoggart variously calls them "adages", "sayings", "epigrams", "aphorisms" and "idioms". He treats them as verbal jigsaw pieces that build up a sad picture of how their downtrodden users saw life.

The full picture is analysed under such heads as "Poverty", "Home", "Work", "Family", "Neighbours", "Food", "Drink" and "Death".

Hoggart makes no attempt to provide statistics or even guesstimates for the frequency of use of the expressions he discusses. Nor is there any breakdown by age, sex or other familiar sociolinguistic parameters. He is happier keeping to vague generalisations such as "working-class public morality tends to be relativist" or "women were the living heart of the neighbourly spirit". Occasionally he raises a fascinating question, such as how an unrecognised quotation from Shakespeare can end up on the lips of minimally educated speakers 400 years later; but few answers are forthcoming. The search for answers is confined to trawling through the Oxford English Dictionary or the pages of Eric Partridge and his peers.

Although Hoggart's anecdotal observations are often lively, there is a smell of stale lexicography pervading this doom-laden moralising tract.

If one were to take Hoggart's approach seriously, the main objection to it would have to be that it perpetuates an outdated 19th-century view. It presupposes that, to quote Alfred Strettell's formulation of it in 1851, there are "hereditary modes of thought and feeling and contemplation which discover themselves by the peculiar modes of their expression in language".

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, Oxford University.

Everyday Language and Everyday Life

Author - Richard Hoggart
Publisher - Transaction.
Pages - 181
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7658 0176 0

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