The King’s English: Kingsley Amis corrected the “maladies of the herd” in a posthumous book

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“Has your enormity in the Observer been pointed out to you?”

Martin Amis knew he was in hot water when his father, Sir Kingsley Amis, asked this question over Sunday morning breakfast decades ago.

“‘My enormity?’ I knew he was applying the word in its proper sense – ‘something very bad’, and not ‘something very big in size,'” the younger Amis wrote a year ago in The Guardian.  “And my mistake was certainly atrocious: I had used martial as a verb. Later, while continuing to avoid hopefully (a favourite with politicians, as he insists), I pooh-poohed his reprimand about my harmless use of the dangling thankfully. I also took it in good part when, to dramatise my discipleship, as he saw it, of Clive James (a very striking new voice in the 1970s), Kingsley started reading out my reviews in an Australian accent.”

The occasion for the article was the republication of The King’s English (“King” was a nickname he tolerated, apparently). After the recent Amis visit, I ran across the Guardian article and, inspired, ordered the book.

I’d like to say you won’t find any of the abuses Amis discusses in The Book Haven.

That’s what I’d like to say.  But… there are so many… how could one be guiltless of them all?  Amis classifies  brutalise, decimate, crescendo, dilemma, alibi, avid, oblivious, optimistic, eke out and refute, among many others, as “unusable through ambiguity.”  I’ll have to read the book to find out exactly why.

Here are two abuses in particular:

Filial devotion.

Déjà vu, an uncanny sense of:  Its original application was to a transient psychological state, not uncommon among those under about forty, in which the subject feels that he has seen before some place where he has provably never been in this life (thus providing fanciful evidence for reincarnation). The journalistic contribution has been to apply this feeling to some event or situation a person has witnessed before . . .

The journalistic contribution thus obscures the old meaning, while providing “the needy with a useful and quite posh-looking alternative to ‘this is where I/we came in’ and other tattered phrases”. Similarly with jejune. On its journey from meaning “scanty, arid” to meaning “immature, callow”, jejune has acquired an extra vowel and an acute accent, plus italicisation as a Gallicism. Kingsley quotes the following beauty: “Although the actual arguments are a little jéjeune, the staging of mass scenes are [sic] impressive.” We watch such developments (in this case the gradual “deportation of an English word into French”) as we would watch the progress of a virus; like babesiosis and fog fever, such viruses afflict cattle and buffalo and wildebeest; they are the maladies of the herd.”*

Whatever one thinks or doesn’t think about Martin Amis, his filial devotion is impressive – especially when directed towards a father who was not always, to put it mildly, supportive.  Amis-the-son relates this moving, end-of-life anecdote:

Two months before he died, Kingsley had a heavy fall after a good lunch (“At my age,” as he used to say, “lunch is dinner”) and banged his head on a stone step. Thereafter, by degrees, he became a pitiable and painfully disconcerting madcap. He kept trying, he tried and he tried, but he couldn’t write; he couldn’t read, or be read to; and his speech was like a mixture of The Cat in the Hat and Finnegans Wake. Aged 73, he had just finished a book on the King’s English; and now English was a language the King no longer had. His fate was a brutal reminder. We are all of us held together by words; and when words go, nothing much remains.

After the death, the typescript of the book – “then hardly more than a family rumour” – was delivered to the son’s door.

Says the younger Amis:  “The battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle. It takes place within the soul of every individual who minds about words.”

(The elder Amis’s Paris Review interview is here.)

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* The Guardian helpfully points out in an afterthought: “While the structure of this sentence is strictly accurate it has led several readers to point out that neither affliction results from a virus – babesia is a protozoan and fog fever is caused by the toxin 3-methylindole. However, like some viruses, they produce illnesses that affect herds.”

 


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