Jolly Good to Jolly Bad, I Say!

In  the film My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins laments the murder of the English language going to the extent of singing, “There are even places where English completely disappears; in America, they haven’t used it for years.” That was an excerpt from the song “Why can’t the English learn to speak?”

I am wondering what Henry Higgins would say if he was to hear the way the English language is spoken today. I imagine he would say something to the tune of, “When did the use of words turn from jolly good to jolly bad?”

The formation of words is an art. People who craft their words skillfully are even called wordsmiths.

I have often wondered how certain words or phrases become popular. In my imagination, I picture someone gazing on a scene unfolding and conjuring up words and phrases to succinctly and aptly describe the mood or sentiment. The wordsmith does it so well, it catches on especially in an era where there was no television or the Internet; a time when people listened to and relied on each other for entertainment.

Of course, wordsmiths in times gone by were also influenced by the culture they lived in. That probably accounts for why the English language has turns of phrases that are so humourous, invoking a response of “jolly good, I say!”  After all, the British were known for their tongue-in-cheek humour. As for the degree of sexism? Well, the wordsmiths of past eras lived in a male dominated society, didn’t they? They were also likely to comprise more men!

Think. What else could account for a tennis or badminton match beginning with the referee calling “love all”? Huh? Here I am poised and tense to smash my opponent all over the court and the referee is saying “love all”? I wonder who crafted that?

I think it must have been a group of men deciding on the rules of the game over several drinks. It’s a leisurely afternoon at some exclusive male bastion. They are in no hurry to finalise the rules. And the conversation wanders several times to ruminating over women, the business of love and the state of their various amours. Suddenly, one of them says, “I say, I have it. The call for the start of a tennis game should be – Love All! Isn’t that what we would like to do? And can’t because women expect fidelity? It’s a zero sum game, love is. And so is the start of any match. Zero score, that is!” The male club begin chortling at the delicious irony and with a wicked sense of humour, the all-male group decide on “love all.”

No doubt a similar group of men decided to term an over with no runs scored in cricket a ‘maiden’ one.

Then there is menopause. Men-o-pause! But wait a minute. This one must have been invented by a woman with a huge sense of mischief. I am sure of it.

Growing up, most of the books I read were by British authors. And boy, did they evoke a chuckle every now and then. I miss those days. Now, it seems American authors dominate the literary scene. But mostly it seems the humour has vanished.

It’s all about realism. The lightheartedness is gone. The books are still enjoyable but I miss the humour. No doubt this is because America has dominated the world for so long that it has hijacked the English language and Americanised it.

I admire the American pursuit of reasoning and quest for perfection. And I do agree that words have to be chosen carefully to avoid hurting others.  I have never bought the argument, “I didn’t mean it” because the words have come from somewhere in a person’s mind.

word by TRF_Mr_Hyde - under Creative Commons license
word by TRF_Mr_Hyde – under Creative Commons license

But does everything have to be taken so seriously? Or is it because every word these days has to be examined by risk averse, grim faced lawyers for fear of being sued?

We need to find a balance. Otherwise we have become a society that has lost its sense of humour.

I am a woman and I find the use of words like ‘maiden’ in cricket howlarious. I only hope that by publishing this blog, some overly zealous politically correct establishment does not now go around changing the term.



Featured Image Credit: “Amazing Laughter” sculpture by Yue Minjun. Image by Matthew Grapengieser ( under Creative Commons license)




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