When I was a kid I had a black and white view of the world. I didn’t think things were set in stone, I knew they were set in stone. People were what they were, things were what they were, words meant what they meant and those things were immutable. I was a stubborn little bastard, and let's not even go into how many times my mother had to explain it to me before I was prepared to accept that 1+1 did not equal 11.
Looking back I do find myself wondering if that was entirely unrelated to my having a father so dogmatic that he believed having brown sauce and salad on the same dinner plate was an offence punishable by death.
My world was changed forever when I realised that words could change their meaning too, and it all started when I heard the following tirade at school:
“Gay doesn’t mean that. It shouldn’t mean that. It used to mean happy. Gays have taken the word and polluted it because THEY ARE NOT HAPPY.”
It’s a sign of how enlightened those times were that the hate filled demagogue in question was my French teacher Mr Williams, shaking and white with rage. I can’t remember how that subject even came about – maybe he had opened one of our copies of Tricolore Deux to find we’d written “Stephen O’Hanlon is gay” all over a fascinating account of La Rochelle’s tourist trade. But in any case he stormed out of the room and went to smoke his pipe in the staff room leaving us all feeling a little nonplussed. A moment passed and then we went back to our textbooks with renewed energy and extra determination. Not to learn French of course, pas du tout, but to find more and more creative and obscene ways to deface them. Drawing stiffies, complete with crinkly-pubed bollocks, all over cartoon character “Claude Leclochard” for example.
At the time, it felt disconcerting, like the meaning of things had shifted. But now, the capacity of words and concepts to change their meaning is one of the things I love the most about life and language. Let’s take, for instance, the relatively recent tendency to use “fun-sized” to refer to little individually wrapped chocolate bars. Excuse me? Fun-sized? I don’t know what planet these people live on but in my world a fun sized chocolate bar would be the size of a football pitch. Fun isn’t something you have in tiny doses unless you have a nervous disposition and a heart condition, and to suggest otherwise is just insulting our collective intelligence. Is anyone ever going to boast “why don’t you come over here and sit on my fun-sized erection”? Of course they’re fucking not. What piffle.
Then there is that business term which propels people into the wankosphere like some kind of preposterous space shuttle of shite, namely turning “action” into a verb. Oh, I’ll just action that. We’re actioning the challenges. That vital email that just came in from the Head of Service Delivery Change Liaison Excellence Management? You know, the one so urgent that he neglected to use a spell checker (though it might just be that he thinks “projext” is a real word). Fear not! I actioned it mere minutes ago.
GAH. For fuck’s sake, it’s a noun. A noun. Sometimes I just want to take a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Language And Usage and action it, unlubed I might add, all the way up these people’s fucking sphincters.
They need to realise that you can’t go around verbing nouns willy nilly just because you feel like it. This is English, not frigging Esperanto.
But the word whose meaning has changed most over the years, and the concept I find the most fascinating, is the word “friend”. Back in the day it meant someone you walked to school with, or hung out with in your breaks with. Someone whose house you went round to in order to play board games, card games or (shudder) Dungeons and Dragons. Someone who everyone thought fancied the girl you fancied because you, being chicken and repressed, accidentally spread that rumour round the whole school (or that may just be me that did that, and I never got round to apologising either).
Later in life it came to be someone you went down the pub with, or went clubbing with, or moaned about women with. Moaning about women featured a lot. Or, in the case of women friends, someone who relentlessly moaned to you about the shitty men in her life while constantly saying “why can’t I meet someone like you?” (the unspoken postscript “only attractive” always hanging in the air like an eggy and unspeakable cloud of flatulence).
But now the notion of a friend has exploded into fragments thanks to the magic of the internet. I can count as friends people that I’ve never met who like the same bands as me, or know the same people as me, or have a great blog or have been fooled into thinking I have a great blog. I know some people think this is a very sad state of affairs, but I reckon that’s nonsense. My life has been vastly enriched by being able to get to know fantastic music fans from California, fascinating lawyers from Cape Town, brilliant doctors from Michigan and hilarious humourists from Exeter. And the people who bemoan the demise of “real” friends never seem to have anything to replace it with except Christmas cards from their “real” friends saying “we really must make sure this is the year we meet up”. Every fucking year.
But even concepts as elastic as friendship can be stretched and snapped, and that’s why every so often I cull my list of Facebook friends. I did exactly that a couple of days ago and the statistics were frightening. I managed to delete 12 “friends” without batting an eyelid. My friend David (who surely by now needs no introduction) said “You should do a blog post detailing who you’ve got rid of and why.” So I shall do exactly that - next time.
Think of this as a cliff hanger. Or perhaps a fun-sized post.