December 28, 2008

I guess we all do it, although I worry that I may be the only one, of course, and that any half-decent psychiatrist would have me into a secure unit the moment he or she found out.

Copycatting. What I mean is the way we adopt phrases and habits from others and bring them into our daily lives – snaffling a bit from someone else until our behaviour is only 90%, if that, original. Of course, there are the national catchphrases in any case, or even words. One of the odder ones is ‘Naff Off’, which probably existed in some pocket of the country in the sixties, but which had a two-stage journey into the British psyche (or am I the only one still saying ‘Naff Off,’ doctor?) It was popularised by Porridge, the Clement/ La Frenais vehicle for Ronnie Barker’s prodigious acting talents (he was also a great writer, but I never warmed to his fondness for sound-effect parodies like Futtock’s End). The writers correctly spotted that, if a sit-com was set in a prison, it would be a bit strange if there was no swearing, and adopted Naff Off as their substitute. Barker’s character, Fletcher, deployed it to great effect, and, not long into the show’s run, it gained a great deal more publicity when – of all people – Princess Anne was reported to have used it, quite possibly of reporters. At this point, coincidentally, everyone joined in.

Catchphrases outlive their sources, like most sayings (who was it who got up one morning and observed ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’, I wonder? He or she must have been pleased with the coinage). So there are still people around, in their thirties, who say ‘I thangew’ for ‘Thanks’, and cannot possibly remember Arthur Askey, and even some who say ‘Don’t mind if I do’, the Colonel Chinstrap riposte from the wartime radio show ITMA (It’s That Man Again, and no, I haven’t been lying about my age).

But this also happens on a micro basis. For instance, two phrases I know I use are ‘Ariba!’ (roughly, ‘Great’!), and ‘Fuck-me-Reg’ (‘Blow me down’). ‘Ariba!’ opens a track on a very obscure Grace Slick album from the 1970s, called ‘Manhole’. ‘Fuck-me-Reg’ is the lament of (I think) the drummer in The Troggs in a famously recorded session which demonstrated, if proof were needed, that they had a hard job putting together their usual battery of simple-chord-and-drumbeat songs. Reg was (is, honestly) the singer. They were (are, the two survivors) from Andover. The drummer was unable to get the beat straight, and used this particular expletive. And a colleague of mine, and his wife, adopted it. And I ended up adopting it, too.

I had a friend at university (that sounds a bit sad, I had more than one) who said ‘Hilarious’ a lot (and was mocked for it. But that has slipped into my lexicon of phrases. And there was a sketch (Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd, the great comic actor who died earlier this year) used in a regular TV fixture in the 50s and 60s, ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’,┬áto which every BBC sitcom contributed a ten-minute special, and which is still current in my family, even if the users are now down to me and my brother. The show was called ‘Hugh and I’. The sketch made fun of a deaf character (possibly played by Jack Douglas, who died in the last fortnight, but here I could be wrong) – the grandfather of the house. The sketch (which also involved Wendy Richard) was about playing Christmas word games. Each member of the household said a word, clapped thrice, and the next person said an associated word. Say something disconnected, and you were out. The grandfather (whose deafness seems less funny now that I have to turn the TV up to 21 to hear it) couldn’t grasp the principle. Terry Scott illustrated it by saying that, if one person said ‘Wicker’, the next might say ‘Basket’. At the end of the sketch, the local rector arrived (interestingly, this didn’t seem odd at the time), and the old man said ‘Who’s that?’, Terry Scott replied loudly, ‘VICAR’, at which the old man clapped three times and shouted ‘BASKET’. For the next 40+ years, if anyone ever, anywhere, in any context, used the word ‘Vicar’ in the vicinity of the Greenwell family, the Greenwell present replied ‘Basket’.

That was a long nonsense. I was only going to say that fiction writers can get a lot of good characters going by using family slang and transposing it. Now I’ll close. Have to go up to the village shop. Where I may see the Vicar.