WILL SELF questions Matt Hancock’s choice of words, and looks at some of the meaningless catchphrases of our time.
Come the era, come the catchphrase – or the nonce word or expression for that matter. We all know those people who compulsively pepper their dialogue with terms that have become merely phatic, and hence meaningless: the ‘likes’ and ‘y’knows’ proliferating like some hideous, like, verbal metastasis. Except for this: good disciples of Saussure as we must be, we understand that within the very arbitrary nature of the sign is its true, like, significance. I have long believed that people have taken to saying everything is ‘like’ something else because of the increasingly artificial nature of the world we inhabit; no wonder we see – at a subconscious level – similitude at every level, when we all wear the same clothes, eat the same, like, food and buy the same mass produced, like, products.
By the same token, the propensity for bedizening ordinary speech with the moronic ‘to be honest’, is indeed a telling sign of a decline in our veracity, and our attendant anxiety – why else would people append it to statements that no one could possibly doubt the truth of; for example: ‘to be honest, I don’t like brown bread.’ However, while such verbal tics can be annoying, they don’t make the news, existing as they do at a merely semi-conscious level.
There’s another class of catchphrases which do obtrude more: speed bumps in the open road of public discourse. Back before the financial crash of 2007-8, when environmental concerns were gaining a lot of traction, the buzzword was ‘sustainable’ in all of its forms. We got used to hearing that everything should be sustainable, and that we should be sustaining this sustainability as our first priority. But as soon as the markets tanked sustainability was gone with the proverbial wind, and we were back to ‘going for growth’, and ‘rebuilding the economy’ like, um, billy-o. If we retreat still further in time, to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of the early 2000s, the expression ‘minded’ got a lot of airplay and column-inches. In those years it was judges, initially, who were ‘minded’ to either rule in favour or against the government – latterly, ministers started to become ‘minded’, then MPs, and eventually the likes of you and me found ourselves ‘minded’ to have some brown bread.
In this case the linguistic contagion occurred because the decision by the Blair government to go to war against the British people’s will led to the judiciary rubbing up against the executive, instead of remaining separate. There was this vector for the spread of ‘minded’, and also – in common with ‘like’ – an unconscious motivation: in this case, a collective realisation that far from being minded at all, the entire nation was blundering, mindlessly, into a quagmire. Of course, the current coronavirus crisis has been sufficiently major to’ve spawned all sorts of novel locutions and usages, yet the one that seems to fall most readily from the lips of ministers, public health officials, medical experts and police commanders is ‘ramp-up’.
Commenting last week on the decision to declare a ‘major incident’, as a result of the increase in Covid-19 cases in the Greater Manchester area, Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester city council said: ‘Although the council and partner organisations have been working closely to tackle the impacts of the pandemic since early this year, declaring a major incident means we can ramp this up further.’ Cognate with the Old French ramper, meaning to ‘creep, crawl or climb’; the expression is first used in English to refer to climbing plants being ramped-up a trellis or cane. This organic sense then, suitably – and sustainably – enough, gets transliterated into the economic context, where it used to refer to rapid expansions in production.
It’s easy to understand how the deployment of such a term conforms to our leaders’ fervent desire that we should all see ourselves as good little employees (albeit furloughed) of that nauseating chimera ‘UK plc’; and moreover, how the use of such business-speak bridges the gap between the military metaphors so readily reached for by those who, um, combat disease, and the very non-martial reality of sitting around waiting for someone in a white coat to come up with a vaccine. While those as yet also chimerical vaccines and treatments for the virus are themselves being ramped-up – or, rather, the government’s commitment to buy them is being ramped-up, as if by this mental enlargement alone a cure could be found.
Of course, the real impetus for all this human ramping-up of ‘ramping-up’ is an underlying viral reality. We can talk until the cows come home (and infect us with a new zoonosis), but this will have no impact on Covid-19 at all. It took three months to record the first million cases – now we’re seeing, worldwide, another million cases every four days or so. Now that’s what I call ramping it up!