Erm... what did you say again, dear reader?

English-mangle-word-zels – fresh from Reg whippersnapper's garden

Flame of the Week Have you ever uttered the sound "erm" while speaking? More to the point, have you ever erm'd when answering politicians' questions during a scrutiny panel session? If you have, says one Reg commentard, you are bastardising the English language. Oh yes.

Turn your eyes, dear reader, to our writeup of the London Assembly's scrutiny session held last week to find out what on earth is going on with the Thameslink* that is the Emergency Services Network.

As is our wont, here at El Reg we watched and listened to that hearing so you didn't have to, writing down the important bits for your later delight and delectation. So it was that we wrote down the words of Bryan Clark, ESN programme director, in response to questions about the project's timescale.

To wit, the good Mr Clark said, inter alia: "And so we will formally need to, erm, give notice that we're changing the shutdown date in December."

Nothing particularly ungrammatical about that sentence.** It's a piece of spoken English, written down precisely as articulated by the man himself. While ESN-watchers won't be too chuffed that they still haven't formally told Motorola that their existing contract needs extending, as an answer to a question it was satisfactory.

Or was it?

A couple of days ago your correspondent received an email from a reader, who for the purposes of this tale will be named Norman. Norman asked us this:

"And so we will formally need to, erm, give notice that we're changing the shutdown date in December." > > Whatever does ERM mean?

Not having looked at the story Norman was commenting upon, we replied: "Try reading the sentence as if a slightly nervous middle manager with a rope around his neck was saying it while standing on a rickety platform. :-)"

It is fair to say that this response left Norman... dischuffed. Highly dischuffed. So dischuffed, in fact, he responded with the sort of verbose rant your correspondent hasn't read since a Sunday Times sub-editor deleted the letter 'a' from the final sentence of a prima donna columnist's output.

My good sir;

I have the gravest doubts that a middle manager would be saying this foolish little term in the circumstance that you have articulated. I had never heard this term either by direct/indirect reference. I must confess that I wish I had never heard it at all. I have you to blame for that.

I have taken note that our beautiful language is being bastardized with increasing frequency. My frustration knows no bounds. I blame our youth for these rapid changes in our lexicon. Another horrific example would be, you know. I have taken note that MA and PhD holders use this term in their conversations with increasing frequency. An entire sentence might contain two or three instances of you know. I have several theories around these issues which are too complicated for this.

Some time spent researching the works of Wittgenstein might be of value to you. Further, is it absolutely necessary to destroy what, otherwise, is a very well-written article?

When I read your article, I was reminded of the entity standing on a corner waiting for a bandwagon. As soon as one rolls by he will jump on with great enthusiasm only to disembark at another corner and await the arrival of still another bandwagon. Our societies have devolved to a point where we are so desperate to be accepted that we will go to unrealistic ends to achieve that acceptance. You may rest assured the use of the word we in the previous sentence does not apply to me.

In closing, might I implore you to stick to good old English. It will never fail you.

We do not think Mr Clark of the ESN holds a PhD, nor would we be so presumptuous as to arrogate to him a lack of knowledge of 20th century philosophers' works. Frankly, everyone ought to have a solid working knowledge of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, even if he was as sloshed as Schlegel when he wrote it.

Having, however, had Norman put us into our philosophical and metaphorical box, it appears there is nothing left for us to do but gaily exclaim "erm?", mount our bandwagon and roll it on until we can disembark on a convenient corner, ejaculate once again the horrifically offending "erm" and await the next corner-passing bandwagon, even as society degenerates around our sadly ungrammatical ears, erm and all.

What is the world coming to when a senior manager being questioned by politicians can't even say the word erm while thinking on his feet? Old people these days. Tch. They just don't make them like they used to. ®


* Thameslink is a southeast England-based rail operating company. It is synonymous in the English lexicon with "delay", "shambles" and "inexplicable" thanks chiefly to its inability to run trains on time, something the government pays it heart-stoppingly large sums of other people's money to do without the delays. Thameslink also managed to trigger a legal threat from, of all companies, Poundland, a bargain basement retail chain, by comparing its pisspoor train services to the understandably aggrieved chain.

** Yes, that one is oh-so-ironically a fragment. Bite me – but don't say erm first.

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