Which side are you on, boys?
Robert Lane Greene does me the double honor of quoting me on Johnson, The Economist’s language blog, and mentioning me in the same breath as Kingsley Amis.
In “Berks and wankers,* prescriptivists and descriptivists,” he quotes from Sir Kingsley’s The King’s English:
Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one's own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops, and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.
Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one's own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.
It is not easy to keep a reasonable middle ground between the prescriptivists—by whom I mean the informed prescriptivists, like Bryan Garner, whom I admire and with whom I seldom disagree, rather than the propogators of zombie rules—and the descriptivists, whose indulgence for ripe, rich colloquialisms has much appeal. It is particularly tricky because social and class issues lurk beneath nearly all questions of usage, and Sir Kingsley compactly indicates.
The ground can be treacherous. Watch where you put your feet. But try to enjoy the walk, too.
*A little more strait-laced (not, thank you, straight-laced) in America than in Britain, we don’t casually use berk (dolt, fool, idiot), which has a link through Cockney rhyming slang, (“Berkeley hunt”) to a much more objectionable word, or wanker (masturbator, jerk). Apologies to anyone whose sensibilities are offended. But if your vocabulary is now enriched, you’re welcome.