I love words. I think it comes of growing up in a family which played word games all the time – we would talk about ‘chish and fips’ and ‘par carks’, we’d say ‘what’s harpooning?’ instead of what’s happening, and my father would set off for work every day with his ‘grief pace’ instead of a briefcase. Years later, I remember the first time I heard the word ‘bling’ – I was living abroad at the time and it made me feel curiously adrift from the UK that words were still being invented, in my absence, without my say-so. Over the past winter I have loved all the coatigans, slarves, scats and slankets which have suddenly bundled into the language in a desperate bid to keep us warm.
Imagine my joy at discovering that the British Library is devoting a whole exhibition to this very subject, the evolution of the English language. I am sure that English’s ever-welcoming attitude to every fad word or nugget of slang that comes its way has helped it become such a global hit, linguistically speaking, while sniffier languages, which have whole academies devoted to weeding out ‘improper’ words (yes, France, I’m talking about you) are spoken by dwindling bands. Not that I’m being antigallican or anything (oooh I’ve been dying to use that fabulous word in a blog post for ever!).
I’m even more pro the British Library than usual after reading in Antonia Fraser’s memoir Must You Go? that she sprayed her manuscripts with a good sloshing of Miss Dior before donating them to the archives, stuffed into Chanel carrier bags. That is truly stylish, you must admit, though I would never have been able to tell from the pictures in the book that she spent such fortunes on clothes. I suppose you can blame the seventies for that. I hope whichever academic disinters her oeuvre in a hundred years will still be able to catch a faint memory of her scent.
The exhibition,called Evolving English: One language, many voices, which opened in November and runs until 3 April, features huge treasures of English literature, like the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, Shakespeare’s quartos, Dr Johnson’s Dictionary and speeches by Churchill, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, It’s all free and you can even record your own voice and have it added to the archives, a bit like Lady Antonia. I shall certainly be using plenty of my favourite scent before I make my recording. There’s a quiz to do online about the origins of English. I did the ‘Fair to Middling’ level (expecting to get it all right!) and got a, ahem, fair to middling score. There’s even a Twitter hashtag, #evolvingenglish.
Doesn’t it all sound just fantabulistic? See you there.