Belfast Telegraph

Forget tweets, let's preserve our fantastic language

By Mike Gilson

If I described you as a jackanape would you be pleased or insulted? Not sure? Me neither, until recently. I am currently reading an excellent book called Mr Foote's Other Leg by Ian Kelly. It is a fantastically ribald tale of the 18th century theatre star, comedian and playwright Samuel Foote, the founder of the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London.

Space doesn't allow me here to detail the dissolute, revolutionary and richly colourful life Mr Foote lived. Safe to say he inhabited a world that was at once high (an outburst of Enlightenment-infused learning and artistic flowering), and low (the antics of West End London in the 1750s make the fall of the Holy Roman Empire seem like a vicar's tea party).

The unfortunately named Foote lost a leg in a horse-riding prank organised by the Prince of Wales and hopped among gilded names such as Dr Johnson, Boswell, Sheridan, Garrick, Fielding, Walpole and Reynolds in a veritable Who's Who of Georgian literati.

It has scandal and lashings of sex, but what strikes me most was the beautiful way the English language was put to use at the time in the service of both high and low motive.

It set me thinking about modern-day discourse. Have we lost what is wonderful about the English language and its ability to adapt to the many outside influences that have been visited on it throughout the centuries?

Is the age of instant communication, the Lol-ing of text speak, or the 140-word inanity of tweeting, killing the thoughtful use of language and the full exploitation of its marvellous vocabulary?

See in Foote's day, time and effort was put into letter writing, to using language to gain an advantage and frankly to euphemistically tell of the outlandish events of the day in a time when many things were publically frowned upon, but privately actively partaken of.

Foote tells of an actress who met his colleague's "libidinous affections with ardour." She was a bit of a goer, then? The book describes all of the above honourable gentlemen as "actress-chasers", in those days female thespians often also dabbling in an even older profession.

Many characters are described as Rakes, a man of carefree virtue, and Foote himself is said to have had a "large inexpressive apology for a face" by one brilliantly barbed critic when he first treads the boards. Many people are dismissed as "parvenu", those of low class, who find themselves above their station by means of suddenly acquired wealth. A bit rich from Foote, who was indeed a parvenu himself.

Of course, ingenues, otherworldly girls, abound. Walpole talks of the whirligig that is London of those times as a "place not long troubled by stale events" and at once, with restrained language, encapsulates the capital.

Language as well as actions could indeed be coarse, but more often a sharp mind allied to exhaustive vocabulary could gain you entry to circles only a private education and a banker's salary would today.

Do we cherish our language enough today? I'm not sure. Is it valued enough in our schools? Probably not. But surely through knowledge of its richness comes knowledge itself. Replacing allegory with reality show cliche doesn't seem much of a swap. Of course, it would be absurd to go around talking like a Restoration fop. A thick ear would rightly follow. But the world of Samuel Foote has something to teach us, I think, and that is that there is a simple delight in the well-chosen word. Oh and by the way, you wouldn't be pleased if I called you a jackanape, as Foote described a fellow actor.

Roughly translated it means a monkey-like social climber with little merit. Sorry.

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