If I ruled the world: Simon Callow

Stop English changing, for Shakespeare’s sake
March 27, 2014

"If I ruled the world, life would be very unstable" ©Colin McPherson/Corbis

The first thing we do,” says the rebel leader Dick the Butcher in Henry VI Part Two, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” Perhaps Dick the Slightly Less Butch might think twice about that: wiping out things you don’t like tends only to foster their re-growth, as I well recollect from hacking off a hated wart, which returned at double the size. When I reported this to one of my school chums (I was living in Africa at the time), he looked at me pitifully. “That’s not how to get rid of warts,” he said. “Everyone knows how to get rid of warts. You get a potato, cut it in half, rub the wart with one half and bury the other half in the ground. It’ll take three days.” Three days later, the wart fell off. So change comes in unexpected ways, a fact I should have to acknowledge if I ruled the world.

Very few people, for example, who supported the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, saw it as the first step on a path which would lead to gay marriage, the very idea of which would then have seemed irresistibly comic even to gay activists. The act, which made homosexual acts legal between consenting adults in private, was a measure which acknowledged that men and women who had sex with each other were doing no harm to anyone else. It was never the intention to normalise homosexuality. But the result of removing most homosexuals from the threat of prosecution was to liberate us into a visible social existence, which meant of course that we were a potential market; the pink pound quickly became big bucks. That will ensure that we never step backwards to the pre-1967 Dark Ages.

With visibility came familiarity and eventually the radical idea of ordinary gay people. I shocked a friend, 20 years ago, when I remarked that gay liberation would mean something only when parents thought, as they started a family, at least one of our children may be gay, or bisexual, and that will simply be very interesting. Now that idea is hardly worth articulating; it is a truism. The other year I was asked to give a talk to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) group of Deutsche Bank. Expecting a cosy little event, I bowled along, and was astonished that the very large gathering was being addressed by the global head of the bank, who made an impassioned speech about how vital it was that the workforce reflected every kind of difference, that this was good for the employees, the bank and the customers. At that moment, I thought, this is a profound change, one that has entered the very sinew of life. But the process by which it happened is mysterious and organic. How, when I rule the world, will I legislate for that?

Of course, my responsibilities as ruler will not simply be to effect change; sometimes they will be concerned with halting it, no doubt an impossible task. Inevitably, it is language and its development (or retardment) that concerns me most. I note with rising anxiety the systematic realignment in emphases which is slowly turning our language from an essentially iambic one (da-dah) into a trochaic (dah-da) or even dactylic (daah-da-da) one. This is most noticeable in words beginning with “re”—now pronounced REsearch, REmit, REtard, as if the thing being done was repeated—or REpeated, as I have heard. REhearsal cannot be far behind. Presumably the attraction of this is that it starts the word with a bang, but it slows the flow of words and distracts from their content. The real loser here is Shakespeare whose verse, and that of most of his contemporary dramatists, follows the natural rhythm of English speech and is therefore iambic and comes, as the man said, trippingly off the tongue. But it will cease to do so if tongues and ears are no longer accustomed to it.

However, I concede that even my omnipotent powers will be hard put to it to enforce this linguistic refinement. There is, however, one diktat I shall impose without fear or favour: the word “pop,” except as a diminutive of the word popular, a description of a fizzy drink, or the onomatopoeic evocation of a sound, will be banished. This is not a word, it is a virus, which has been eating up the English vocabulary. It is now used as a substitute for virtually any verb. The other day I went to a clinic in which the nurse told me to pop my clothes off, pop myself up on the bed, pop my head down on the pillow. The doctor would pop by any moment now. When it was over, I could pop along to the cashier, pop my card in the machine and then pop off. If this goes on, there will be no verbs left. My anti-pop law will be the first passed under my new regime.

I’m afraid to say, though, that if I ruled the world, life would be very unstable. I am, as Leontes says in The Winter’s Tale, a feather for each wind that blows. I read articles with keen approval, wondering why nobody has had the clarity to analyse the self-evident truth of the situation before; the next day I read an article of exactly the opposite tendency, and wonder the same thing all over again. I suspect that, as in certain fairy stories, I shall only be king for a day. But at least I shall have eliminated the word pop.