The English language is sometimes seen as blunt and less 'romantic' than French, Italian or Spanish. When it comes to profanity, the English language often lags behind the picturesque inventiveness of Polish, Latin American Spanish, Greek and Russian. Yet this perception denies the glorious depth of English in descriptors, adjectives, nouns and verbs. It ignores the multifarious origins of English, which are often preserved in legal language and thus may not be as widely known or used as might be wished.
'Without let or hindrance' is a telling example: in 'ordinary' conversation, 'let' means to allow, 'hindrance' to prevent or obstruct. The phrase came into the language in consequence of the Norman Conquest. 'Law French' took primacy in courts, with Saxon words (as in 'let') remaining as a part of legal discourse – so long as coupled with words having a French or Norman-French origin. 'Goods and chattels' is another: 'goods' being the Saxon version and 'chattels' the Norman French. In other instances, the Norman French has taken over, albeit historically Law French was ousted by the coming of Oliver Cromwell and the Republic.
Today, 'de facto spouse' has effectively replaced 'common law wife', with no need for any phraseology combining the two. Its being so commonly used means that 'de facto' has become the entire term: no need for 'spouse' to be attached to make the term meaningful to the broader public.
The phrase 'calling a spade a spade' – when everyone knows it's a 'shovel', is a reminder of the struggle waged by Anglo-Saxons against the Norman invaders. It remains as a signifier of the campaign to assert native language and customs in the face of the usurpers: that good old straightforward Saxon terms were clung too, as a code of defiance to the Norman occupation.
Language, after all, is a powerful system, not only of communication but of understanding. 'The words to say it' is a phrase well-known within and without the Women's Movement, feminists employing it in recognising that the realities of women's lives are often misinterpreted, misunderstood or misrepresented because the dominant language uses descriptors that mislead, or there are no words precisely identifying women's condition.
The Women's Movement has done a great deal to expand the English language so as to ensure that women's experience has the words to describe it. One of the most prominent terms is 'sexual harassment' invented to describe conduct to which women had been subject for centuries, but which had no common descriptor or identifier that could be used by women to recognise the universality of the conduct and to take action against it. Lin Farley and Catherine Mackinnon are acknowledged as having brought the term into public use, Mackinnon through her book Sexual Harassment of Working Women, published in September 1979 by Yale University Press, Farley through Sexual Shakedown: Sexual Harassment on the Job, published by Warner Books in December 1979.
Rather than the blandness of 'family violence' or 'domestic abuse', which hide the enormity of the conduct and its unlawful nature, in the early 1980s Dawn Rowan and the present writer coined the term 'criminal assault at home and other forms of domestic violence'. As confirmed by a Victorian Government Report which adopted it in its title Criminal Assault in the Home, published in 1984, the phrase is now a part of the English language. Submissions to the High Court in Osland v. The Queen incorporated it too, while one of the Judges adopted 'battered woman reality' as more apposite than 'battered woman syndrome'. The latter implies that the woman who kills a violent husband or 'partner' in self-defence is 'sick', whilst the former acknowledges that killing in self-defence is the path taken by a woman who is in fear of her life and sees no other way of saving herself.
'Paidwork' and 'unpaidwork' are used in the Artemis 'Women's Voices, Women's Lives' series to acknowledge that 'work' is inappropriately used to encompass paidwork only, meaning that the unpaidwork women so often do without acclaim in the privacy of the home is left without a name. Unpaidwork needs to be recognised as what it is – work – without being 'disappeared' through the limitations of language.
The invention of words is paralleled by the changing nature of words and phrases. In this context, 'gay' is the word most often referred to as changing radically in meaning. 'Gay marriage' is seen as a contradiction in terms by those opposed to the concept of same-sex relationships, or at least their being recognised officially by the state. Yet no doubt many gay marriages may well be more joyous, joyful and joy-filled than their heterosexual counterparts, the latter giving rise to the need for the invention of words and phrases such as 'criminal assault at home' (although same-sex relationships are not immune from this form of violence).
Words may be lost through lesser usage, creating gaps or resulting in fewer antonyms or synonyms, with which the English language is generally replete and enriched.
'Gallimaufry' doesn't exist in Word's thesaurus, but does exist in the dictionary, defined by its synonym 'hotchpotch', a 'jumble of people' or a conglomeration of things. Yet 'hotchpotch' is lost to the Word thesaurus, too, although it shows up in the dictionary as 'jumble' – 'a mixture of several unrelated things', 'hodgepodge' (the North American version) or 'stew' – 'consisting of a varied mixture of ingredients, usually mutton and vegetables'. Searching for 'hotchpotch' reveals that the English (Australia) thesaurus provides many synonyms for 'jumble', including mixture, medley, mass, assortment and mishmash, but not, sadly, gallimaufry.
As for scrumping, not only is it absent from Word's thesaurus, 'scrumping' is nowhere to be found through Word's dictionary and is entirely lost to Word Spellcheck, although it is known by some authors of children's books and (sometimes) crime writers. Those wonderful illustrations of urchins atop a high garden wall scrunching apples are the end result of scrumping. Despite its not being acknowledged in storybook pictures (except, perhaps, by implication) scrunching is necessarily preceded by scrumping. The apples must come from somewhere. The likely 'somewhere' is over the wall, where a private orchard grows apple trees bearing the fruit in profusion. 'Scrumped' apples are those taken, generally by schoolboys, from the orchardists' trees when orchardists are elsewhere. In present times, when apples are too often held captive for weeks in refrigerators to facilitate export – resulting too often in the loss of flavour, the scrumping of Pippins and Coxes brings to mind not only the glories of the English language, but the glorious flavour of homegrown apples, or those orchard grown before their consignment to the freezer.
Some have lamented the destruction of the English language through the growing use of texting Once, advertising bore the brunt, as in 'Buy two pairs of sox for the price of one' or 'Eat'n'egg a Day', along with the makers of cards for the festive season in their contraction of 'Christmas' to 'Xmas'. Today, 'u' replaces 'you', '4' means 'for', and '2nite' has long put paid to 'tonite' with 'tonight' nowhere in sight. Text messages aren't even 'text messages': now, they are known universally as 'txt'. .
Does this mean the English language is under threat?
So long as gallimaufry and scrumping exist in the firmament somewhere, never being entirely forgotten, so long as the meaning of words expand to incorporate new ideas, as with 'gay marriage', and so long as the invention of 'the words to say it' continues to ensure that human realities are affirmed, the English language will survive. More, it will grow and change in positive ways, so as to undercut the contractions that abound on the I-phone (sic).
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.