Friday, May 27, 2011

Berks and Wankers; Barbarism and Triviality; Primness

M. Amis, in the Guardian, about K. Amis's usage book:
The battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle. It takes place within the soul of every individual who minds about words.
Rather bluffly, perhaps, Kingsley draws up the battle lines as a conflict between Berks and Wankers:
Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one's own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops, and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.
Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one's own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.
Cf. Auden paraphrasing Whitehead:
Civilisation is a precarious balance between barbaric vagueness and trivial order. Barbarism is unified but undifferentiated; triviality is differentiated but lacking in any central unity; the ideal of civilisation is the integration into a complete whole and with the minimum strain, of the maximum number of distinct activities.
To paraphrase further: if berks had their way the language would be vital -- see the richness of slang -- but too indistinct for clarity, and therefore applicable for very few purposes; it would floriate like Elizabethan writing and be useless for specialized purposes like communicating unfamiliar ideas efficiently. If wankers had their way it would be lucid and dead, good for scientific writing but lacking in suggestiveness and ambiguity.

I am curious about the gender politics of these terms. (NB berk is rhyming slang for cunt via Berkeley hunt. Wanker of course is orig. specifically male.) Primness is, like worldliness, one of those concepts for which the stereotypes won't stay put -- the stereotype re "prim/barren" is f. but so is that re "primal chaos." Amis goes with men as prim, but, e.g., (as per Russell) Kant did not:
Like everybody else at that time, [Kant] wrote a treatise on the sublime and the beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful; the sea is sublime, the land is beautiful; man is sublime, woman is beautiful; and so on.

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