Diran Adebayo
Words, Words…
So, I had to do this UK radio show, the ‘Today’ programme recently – during that whole “Big Brother-Shilpa ‘Race’ row – and I was chuffed that day to realise another ambition. You know how you have your major ambitions – Nobel prize, world domination, blah, blah, and your minor ones – visiting every continent, sleeping with someone from every continent, and – a writer’s one this – having a scholarly essay written about your work whose title has a colon in the middle (“From roots to routes: Images of journey in Diran Adebayo’s ‘Some Kind of Black'” … Loved that.) Well, I’ve a long-time nursed a couple of minor media ambitions. The first was to write for every national newspaper in the country (accomplished, bar ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Star’ and those two will be hard). The other was to be appearing on some radio or TV show, and to drop a little Latin into the mix – a subject I’d loved as a child. You’re chatting about something, and out would drop a deft ‘…ad hominem’, in would slip a sly ‘…sui generis’ or, best of all, my father’s favourite – ‘mutadis mutandis’.

So the ‘Today’ guy calls the evening before, as is their custom, and I’m chatting to him about what I might say on this matter and very quickly, in my ruminations, I see my chance, a gift-horse opportunity… ‘Yes,’ I said excitedly, ‘I’ll do it’.

He rings off and I pick up my dictionary, to confirm the meaning and pronounciation of one ‘pace'(for ‘pace’ it is). Being something of a traditionalist in these matters, I’m a ‘hard c’ man, but I did see that my glossy, new ‘Encarta’ dictionary was promoting the rather controversial modern trend in this dead language of a ‘soft c’. I rolled this around my tongue, I tossed a coin. Okay, let’s ‘parchay’.

More worryingly, I could see, now that I’d refreshed myself on its meaning, that to use the word in the manner I intended (“Pace Blair’s talk about Britain being a tolerant society that welcomes difference, this “Big Brother” has shown the UK to be a less benign animal…”) was looking less a gifthorse and more a crowbar. And, of course, to use a poncey word wrongly would be extremely not good. Oh, I paced a while away, to ‘pace’ or not to ‘pace’. In the end, I decided to go for it. The usage was just about okay, you don’t know when the chance will present itself again, plus this year I’m all about action, about doing, rather than drafting and filing away.

So, you write down your three points that you’re definitely going to make, and five others you’ll say if you have time and, if you’re like me – with three moody alarm clocks, and only one definitely-working but rarely-heard mobile alarm to wake you up at 6am – you don’t sleep. The cab guy comes – an old Naija familiar, but a new Bentley (thanks for that! The Beeb pay you peanuts, but you do get a nice ride) and drops me and I’m pleased to see that Jim Naughtie is the presenter/ interviewer. Naughtie is a man I have seen present Opera on the box; a man, I feel, that will appreciate a little nod to the classics. My moment comes and Naughtie turns to me, and I parchayed away, and I did detect a little, happy, gleam in his eye…I Bentleyed back, took out ye olde eighties filofax, and ticked another one, finally, off the list.

All of which preamble is to say something about the joy of words. Especially poignant now as, in western black popular culture at any rate, we are in a very unvocal, unarticulating, adolescent period. There’s nothing like hearing a good, rarely-heard word properly used. The good word is often as good a guide to the truth or otherwise of the speaker as any – so easy to cover emotions not truly or deeply felt in verbal banality. It’s just a little bit of creativity that anyone can do. My faves are a common word used with a now rare meaning (like ‘passion’ for suffering), or hearing a word used in conversation that I’ve hitherto only seen written down. The other day, at this Arts Council board meeting, our Chair, Christopher Frayling, with a verbal felicity not shared by many knights of the realm, said, ‘Look, I don’t think we should get too dirigiste about this…” Ahh! A little warm something went through me and my respect for the man – already healthy given his pioneering study of my man Sergio Leone and spaghetti westerns – rose a notch. Dirigiste – I’d never heard that before.

And this is one of the reasons why slang is so great. I was having a little debate recently with some friends about the recentish importation of the phrase, ‘My bad!’ to mean ‘Sorry’, courtesy of our American friends. My friends were a bit down on this development, for a couple of reasons, me not at all. I welcome it. The phrase has the virtue of being ‘right’ – if English had to come up with a new phrase for ‘Sorry’ , it could not do more accurately than ‘My bad!’ One of those phrases that does exactly what it says on the tin, and a hell of a lot quicker than ‘Entshuldigen Sie, bitte‘. And also, as a bonus, there is a pleasant echo of ‘mea culpa‘ in there, which brings us back, funny thing, to Latin…