Sunday 6 October 2013

How language changes - from splitting to spitting

It is now 99 years and about three weeks since my great-grandfather was killed, leading his regiment into action at the Battle of the Aisne in 1914.  I'm not sure why I think of him particularly on these occasions, but I do.

This is what I ask myself.  If he rose from the dead, from the village churchyard where he now lies, and popped back to London - would he be able to understand our newspapers?

If we found ourselves in London in September 1914, we would undoubtedly be able to understand his newspapers, but what about the other way around?

I don't mean words like 'tweet' or 'online'.  They would have befuddled us even twenty years ago, but the way that language has changed, and the kind of shorthand language invented by the Daily Mirror under the future Lib Dem peer, Hugh Cudlipp.

And English usage changes surprisingly fast.  And I am in danger here of turning this blog into a middle-aged rant about sloppy English.  I have reached a dangerous age, and it is true that I notice shifts like 'taken off' rather than 'taken from'.

But the reason for writing this post is my surprise that the phrase 'splitting image' has now completely disappeared, to be replaced by 'spitting image'.

I've noticed it for some time, but it became kind of official in my mind at least this week reading two edited and proof-read document - including a novel by Kate Mosse - where it was clearly 'spitting image'.

Do I mind this?  Well, I don't think I have really any grounds for complaining about the way the spoken language changes, but I do complain when it is changed on the basis of a TV satirical programme using puppets, which ran on ITV from 1984 to 1996, with the name Spitting Image (a pun, geddit?).  Especially as the puppets by Luck and Flaw nearly torpedoed the career of David Steel.

Steel went on to greater things, people seem to have forgotten the series - 1996 was 17 years ago after all - but it does seem to have shifted the language.

Every time I hear the shift, it irritates me.  But it just shows how wrong you can be, because closer research reveals that actually the older version is 'spitting' after all.

What does that prove?  I don't know.  But here is one of their most spitting sketches, after Margaret Thatcher's overwhelming election victory of 1987.  Watch out for Ted Heath putting his head in his hand.


Peter Roberts said...

David, it has been 'spitting' for about 400 years. You can't be that old.

Our being able to understand thr English is not the same as being able to understand the meaning.

David Boyle said...

You're quite right, I'm months younger than that. But when I was growing up, it was always 'splitting', but may just be speaking for London W2 circa 1970.