I am forcing myself to make a small but rather embarrassing confession in this post. Small because in the general scheme of things it is so insignificant as to be unworthy of mention; embarrassing because every time it happens I find myself wondering why it has happened, what has caused it and whether or not I should be bothered by it. But mostly because I am aware of it happening after the event and thus far never before. I am also embarrassed by having ceded control to a renegade part of my brain. And what is it?
It is a small verbal tick that I seem to have picked up from goodness knows where. I am aware of verbal ticks in others, the constant “you knows’ that irritate the speech patterns of some unfortunates like grit in a machine and whose overly frequent and inappropriate repetition make me want to scream “STOP IT NOW”; the “innits’, those verbal warts that attach themselves to everyday speech, that make the traditionalist part of me squirm and fight with the modernist “language is a fluid and constantly evolving means of communication’ part of me. (The traditionalist, if you’re wondering, wins. Every time.)
It’s the same impulse in me that makes my knuckles white when I hear an antipodean upward inflection at the end of a sentence that isn’t a question. It’s a personal thing, I know. I’m not proud of it, the onboard, inbuilt, instant negative judgement, language snob in me. It just is. I accept it. But this new development in my own speech troubles me. I am usually hyper aware of my speech. It served me well in my career interviewing the great and good for Oneword Radio. It serves me well when chairing live events at literary festivals. I hope it will continue to serve me well in a couple of weeks time at the London Literature Festival, but a doubt in my confidence in that ability has crept in like a bad smell.
My employer, Ben Budworth, the CEO and publisher of The Lady magazine, first pointed it out. We had been chatting in his office and as the conversation closed I headed for the door and said “OK fella, see you later.” An innocuous statement that would have gone unnoticed but for the sharp antennae that Mr Budworth has for new developments that jar. “Hold on,” he said. ‘Come back here” I returned to stand, confused, beside his desk. “Fella?” “FELLA?” “Surely “my good fellow,” if you must, but “Fella”, oh no, never. Not here. Now go and wash your mouth out.”
I left, chastened by the boss's rather proficient ‘David Brent of traditional magazine publishing' impersonation. I asked myself a number of questions. “Was this the first time I’d said it?” “Where on earth did I pick it up?” “Why had I not noticed it before?” I felt troubled that somehow I’d been found wanting by my boss, who although a long-standing friend, is still my boss in a new job. Someone that I want to impress with my accuracy of language, dexterity of speech and text. I am the literary editor after all. Standards have to set and maintained, even if they're only mine.
Since that first time there have been others. Always with Mr Budworth, some commented on, others not. No-one else has picked up on it. I am not aware of having said it to anyone but him. But there, lurking in the back of my mind is new and uncomfortable seed of insecurity in what was until recently a reliable skill.
As I said, small and embarrassing. But there nonetheless.