Thursday, March 25, 2004

A So-Called Rant

On the so-called back of the so-called Plain English Campaign's so-called vote for the so-called 'most detested tiresome expressions', I'd like to suggest one that I think should have been on the so-called list.

So-called is a word used, it seems to me, for two reasons. The first, more legitimate use, is to express disbelief in the status or aims of something: "The cowboys who installed my double glazing gave me a so-called guarantee but it turned out to be useless", that sort of thing.

The second use, the one I take issue with, comes mainly from people in the news media to emphasise that a new popular expression is not deemed official enough for them to use it.

I recently heard a news report about a marine who was killed in Iraq by "so-called friendly fire". Hang on a minute, I thought, friendly fire was being described as 'so-called' back in the Gulf War thirteen years ago. How long does it take for a phrase like that to enter into accepted language? I would argue that most people would understand exactly what is meant by friendly fire and that it has, therefore, already entered the realms of acceptable English. Why, then, isn't it used by the news media without this verbal distancing of themselves from it? And if they're reluctant to do so then why have they not invented a phrase that's more acceptable to them?

Friendly fire is by no means the only phrase to be given this treatment, though it has perhaps been the most prominent in recent times. It's not really that long since the internet and world wide web were subjected to it and you still see things like 'so-called weblogs' today.

We create new words and phrases all the time as new technologies, industries and political and social situations demand them. This reluctance to embrace them on the part of the news media only serves to show how they are distanced from the culture that invented and use them.

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