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Department of Linguistics



Volume 18 No2  December 2011

book notes

Judy Dunn, Australian Style’s regular illustrator, reviews Modern Manglish - Gobbledygook Made Plain by Neil James and Harold Scruby. Scribe Publications 2011. A$24.95. ISBN: 9781921844508.

Modern Manglish is an up-dated version of Harold Scruby’s earlier Manglish (1989) – an instant best-seller, if the back-cover blurb is to be believed. Here we have more reportage from the linguistic battlefields of the English language, ably assisted by the addition of the charming cartoons of Alan Moir.

Doublespeak, tautologies, mixed metaphors, sports-, law-, business- and politicalspeak are just some of the areas covered. Though these can produce mild amusement or the odd groan of recognition, I can’t help feeling that Messrs Scruby and James do not have this field to themselves anymore. Indeed, such has been the publishing interest in language indiscretions of late, I feel I have heard many of these references and gripes before. I worry this will only fuel the fervour of the rather tiresome language police in our midst.

Reference is made to the ever-changing nature of language (“languages grow or die”) and yet the fine line between “abuse” of language and new usage is never really delineated or accepted. “Verbing”, as they refer to it – “taking a perfectly good noun and turning it unnecessarily into a verb” (e.g. “she’ll podium tonight”) may sometimes jar our ears for now, but may easily be a change in progress. Their exoneration of “to text” as once a verb, then a noun and now a verb again – so therefore acceptable – seems to be clutching at linguistic straws.

The ubiquity of electronic media today has meant that politicians, sportspeople and broadcasters produce hours of spontaneous speech which gets recorded every day. It almost seems unfair to pick up their mistakes. Likewise, I squirm a bit as the English mistakes of people from non-English-speaking backgrounds are paraded before us for our amusement.

The richness of some of the jargon is also overlooked. “blue-skies thinking” is a lovely term in my opinion - certainly more so than the much-diminished literal equivalent of “original/creative thinking” the authors suggest. Likewise with the impoverishing reduction of “it’s not rocket science” to “it’s not difficult”. The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” taps a much richer vein of shared human experience than “take the company line”, and “open the kimono” and “reinvent the flat tyre” are witty and imaginative,whereas “be transparent” and “make the same mistake twice” are not. Surely this is language at its playful, inventive best. It seems the subtitle’s promise to make such language “plain” is itself all too literal. Overuse, of course, can negate the delight of such phrases, but like fashions they come into favour and then are gone again.

The book’s excursions into American and New Zealand idioms and pronunciations seem quixotic, if the authors believe that their writing will help to negate the American influence on our vernacular or erase its effects. In fact, the whole tone of this book feels wrong. Descriptions of aberrant English usage with a bit more humour, a few less lists and a bit more context, would be more engaging for this reader. Other publications such as Ben Macintyre’s The Last Word (Bloomsbury, 2009) come to mind.

Perhaps, in the interim between publications of Manglish editions, we English speakers have come to marvel at the dynamism of our language, rather than want to set it in stone


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