Could be foggy

Over recent years fellow 26 member Nick Asbury has drawn together a collection of weather forecasterisms called Cloudy Language. It captures those wonderfully/irritatingly peculiar phrases so beloved of the men and women of the Met Office, such as “A cloud envelope coming up through Cornwall late in the day…” These mash-ups of technicalisms, abstractions and villagey verbiage have always sounded very contemporary to my ear – a polite form of modern-informal speak that would never have passed the lips of broadcasters before, say, 1990. Then, while reading some old newspapers and magazines, I found the excerpt below. It comes from the New York Herald Tribune and was published in 1964. As an aside, this was the paper that begat the International Herald Tribune and New York magazine. Cinephiles may also recognise it as the newspaper Jean Seberg sells on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Godard’s À bout de soufflé (hence the still, above). But I digress. The point is that the passage from 1964 shows cloudy language is well weathered. Perhaps we should set up a facility to produce analyzations of the history of such phenomena?

The English language in America is fog-bound. This is hellish serious, more serious than who will be the next Republican nominee for the Presidency. If we cannot communicate clearly with one another, who can tell what our votes will mean? Two lousy forces are at work: (a) stencilism and (b) carbonic plague. They have in common only their hideous fear of straight talk. We cannot now say “in colleges”: we must say “at the college level”. Nor can we say “yearly”; things are now “on an annual basis”. Who done this? Webster’s Third? Here is one crime, I think that cannot be lain at their door. But at whom’s?

April no longer brings “showers”, it brings “shower activity”. There is also “flurry activity” here, on a winter basis. Do we have “fog”? Goodness knows we do, but it is “fog conditions” which create “chain reaction pile ups” on the New Jersey Turnpike. (The Turnpike is, of course, a “facility”, just as Columbia University is a facility, at the college level.)

Analysis, is giving way to “analyzation”, by the way, to keep things straight “at this time”—and you’d better not get caught making a summary of things any more because what you’re really after is a “summarisation”. If it’s a good summarisation it could lead to a significant “breakthrough” which could accelerate the toothpaste “explosion” and thus close the dental “gap”.

If a media of communication wants to be more than a passing phenomenon at a satisfactory profit level on an annual basis, it ought to contemplate a facility for more analysation on what in hell’s name is being done to the English language by some “doee” or “doees” unknown.

New York Herald Tribune, 1964

Strangely, an even more recent hour spent nosing through old newspapers unearthed another pedantic, weather-related missive from 1964. This one is from a newspaper that is alive and well today, despite some creaking in the knee department.

“There could be,” said the radio yesterday, “a little snow here and there.” “Snow showers,” it said on Saturday, “could be prolonged.”

Thus the B.B.C. catches up with current cant, which through substituting “could” for “may” or “might” weakens the language by blurring definition. It is now quite common to hear or see “could” used twice in one sentence with a different meaning each time.

Of all people, the B.B.C. should know better. But as yesterday it also said that “cycling past Woburn Abbey, a black squirrel ran across the road,” the situation could now be hopeless.

Daily Telegraph, 1964



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