How to Liven up the English Language
There isn’t much you could say both to your friend trying on a coat and to the martyred legionnaire St George, but you could say ‘you slayed it’. The word ‘slay’ has gone from something you’d mainly hear in Sunday sermons (or League of Legends) to an inescapable fact of uni life. Christians (or dweebs) might take issue with this, but our language does things like this all the time. English is a kleptomaniac, stealing so many words from French and Latin that they now outnumber the original Saxon vocabulary we started out with. We get ‘telephone’ from Greek; ‘anorak’ from Inuit; ‘glitch’ from Yiddish; and ‘spinach’, ‘gizzard’ and ‘squinch’ all from Persian (don’t google squinch — whatever you’re imagining it is infinitely more interesting that what it actually means).
The point is, English likes to steal. And when it can’t pilfer from neighbouring languages, English starts stealing from itself, its own dead and neglected ancestors. You could call this process recycling, but a much more entertaining metaphor is grave-robbing. Slay is one example among many: the internet age has let English exhume ‘lore’ and ‘slander’ from their obscure perches in the family mausoleum (to clarify, I do not have a family mausoleum. That might sound obvious but this is St Andrews and I assume quite a few of you actually do). J.R.R. Tolkien went one step further and used his day job rooting around in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to revive ‘orc’, ‘dwarves’ and ‘tween’. Before Tolkien came along nobody had used those words since the Middle Ages, which makes what he did less graverobbing and more finding-King-Richard’s-body-in-a-car-park-in-Leicester level archaeology.
But it’s been a while since Tolkien went up to the great Middle Earth in the sky and while we do get a new revived word every year or two, I don’t think it’s enough. English is getting stale, and I want to change that. I have a few proposals. I haven’t trawled any medieval manuscripts because I can’t read them (if I was really committed to this article I’d study medieval languages, but I prefer the prospect of future employment). I did spend much of my Sunday going through Shakespeare with a highlighter, though, which will have to do.
First up: the versatile and ever-fresh ALAS! The swear words we’ve got right now are overused to the point that they’re not evocative anymore. We need proper curses, especially now we’re nearing the Scottish winter. Now is the time of year when your alarm clock rings in a room that’s still dark because the sky’s the colour of a compost bin forgotten over reading week. It’s the time of year when getting to your next lecture involves weather so foul, the trek down North Street merits an ice axe. When, as you reach to tap your card on the door scanner, it slips from your wind-blasted fingertips and tumbles to the ground, and to communicate your near-primordial anguish the best English has is ‘sh*t’. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll get some sympathetic looks, but that’s the word you use when you get tea on your desk. If you want to properly convey your mental state, I guarantee you’ll have a better chance throwing your head back and yelling ‘alaaaaas!’. You’re beyond tea-spilling territory — the vibe of alas, for me at least, is more ‘grieving peasants surrendering their firstborn to the Norsemen’. (If you want less intense but fresh curses, try “fie!” “marry!” and “a pox on it!”. They still pack a punch, but they’re not quite firstborn territory).
What about when you’re on the receiving end of a tale of woe from a beloved friend, imparted to you in the tone of voice that strongly implies the recounter does not want any kind of input beyond a nod, a sympathetic coo or a word or two? But what word? I reach for ‘sure’, ‘fairs’ (or, depending on whether you’re affirming or commiserating, ‘that’s so valid’ and ‘that’s so grim’ respectively). But all that feels a bit limp. Your woe-struck friend has gone through the pits — you can muster a stronger show of sympathy. A handily placed ‘forsooth!’ tells them you really care. You could go for “verily”, “tush tush!” or “alas!” too (I said alas was versatile).
Old-timey words aren’t just good at letting you express emotion: they also help you to stand out from the crowd. When you finish an email, quit the “regards”, “best wishes”: the vacuous, meaningless motions you go through to sign off. By that point, the substance of your email is over — you’ve finished grovelling to Student Finance or harrying your course coordinator. You need to convey emotion, not substance, in your sign off — end with “adorations, fertile tears, with groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire”.
Old words can help you stand out in your love life, too: enough of the tepid Tinder jokes they’ve heard a thousand times before. Nothing makes women crazier than a guy dropping into Elizabethan register to rizz. If it’s a girl, “thou wert as witty a piece of Eve’s flesh as any in Illyria” never fails to charm. If you’re looking for a gender-neutral compliment, try: “Your hair hangs like flax on a distaff, and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off” (tasteless? Are you calling Shakespeare tasteless?).
What about after you’ve got the date? First impressions are key. A “hey” or “good to meet you” broadcasts blandness; try “hark!”, “what ho!”, “how now, sot!”. For a conversation starter, lose “how are you”. Everyone has a pre-prepared answer that reveals nothing about how they actually are. The Bard has you covered: “did it fadge”? The shock value of the question will get you a properly revealing answer.
Your Shakespearean vocab may well get you all the way to the late-night link, but what if you realise, in the cold light of dawn, you want to take it no further? You could try ghosting, you could try tepidly and infrequently replying till they get the message, you could try the classic drafted-in-the-notes-app text. None of these seem like great fixes. The Bard has better ideas. For the kind letdown, look to Midsummer Night’s Dream: “my heart to you has but guest-wise sojourned”. For the plaster-ripping rejection: “Get thee gone!” Tarry not! Abjure thyself!”
Maybe I’m deluding myself that the kids will embrace alas. Even Tolkien’s dug-up words didn’t all catch on: nobody knows what a warg is today. But new words will keep on coming, and they’ve got to come from somewhere and someone. So, when night falls, I’ll ready my body bag, and search among the slayed for words that slay.
Illustration by Jordan Anderson