We think this is a first for subtext: a review of a television programme, namely Jonathan Meades on Jargon (BBC4, 10.30pm, 27 May), which readers can still catch via the BBC iplayer (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09xzsbp – programme no longer available, link provided for reference). Only those with a certain kind of sensibility are likely to enjoy every last drop of what is, in effect, an illustrated lecture in which Meades praises slang, the language of the common person, and attacks jargon, used by idiots and charlatans. If you are the sort of person who giggles at the use of term ‘offal-rubbing’ for sexual intercourse or laughs out loud at the description of the jargoneer as someone who ‘gives great forelock’, then you will greatly enjoy this.
Meades begins with a splendid and heartening defence of slang. Slang gets to the core of what we actually think rather than what we are bullied into thinking. Slang is wildly creative; so much of the pleasure of it lies in its making. Meades own invented adjective badered means legless, derived from the flying ace Douglas Bader, who lost both his legs while doing aerobatics. Slang is the opposite of jargon, it has a directness which forms a vital antidote to obfuscation. Jargon, on the other hand, is the language of the trained liar, it is everything slang is not: ‘Centrifugal, evasive, drably euphemistic, unthreatening, conformist.’ While slang belongs to the gutter, ‘jargon belongs to the executive estate,’ he says. ‘It is the clumsy, graceless, inelegant, aesthetically bereft expression of houses with three garages … It is delusional, it inflates pomposity, officiousness and self-importance, rather than punctures them.’
His passionate rant demonstrates how jargon has infected everything – including universities of course. And because you cannot separate jargon from its users, there is plenty of scope for wicked personal attacks – the usual suspects come in for some savage onslaughts.
Clearly polemical rather than carefully argued, and a bit lax on terminology, but nevertheless the subtext reviewer drone felt he a good thesis in the first half hour of the programme. It was surprising that he only quoted George Orwell once, at the end of the first half, given that the 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ basically makes exactly the same point about jargon – and the book 1984 was a chilling illustration of what happens when you take jargon to its logical extreme. In the second half, regional varieties came in for a surprise attack. Meades clearly knows very little about how language works. The very points he was trying to make against regional dialects could equally have been made about what he called ‘slang’ at the beginning (where he was essentially talking about sociolects, i.e. class dialects, though there were some regional aspects to the examples he gave too). Received Pronunciation (RP) was never some golden age lingua franca, as Meades contends – it was an accent (note, not a dialect) spoken as a first-language variety by a small minority consisting of the wealthy elites, and acquired (to a greater or lesser extent) by a certain number of less affluent (but still privileged) who worked in the media and certain other professions. At least one of the examples he gave (the footballer, Denis Law) was very obviously *not* using RP! But his comments on Gaelic were absolutely unforgivable, and incredibly ignorant of the importance of language in the retention of identity and culture.
At this point, your hard-working reviewer drone began to overheat a little. Given the ‘meta’ nature of his arguments, using slang to praise slang, jargon to decry jargon, RP to praise RP, funny accents to make fun of funny accents… can anything he said be taken seriously? Is it all just a big joke at the BBC’s expense, allowing Meades to repeatedly use the tabooest of taboo language on national TV? Should any readers have views on this, slang-filled and jargon-free letters are welcome at the usual address.