By Nina Bhadreshwar
I got my first pocket Oxford English Dictionary when I was ten – that and an orange No Nonsense Shaeffer cartridge pen. That was a definitive moment for me, the delivery of the real tools to be a writer. Later, during my undergraduate studies at King’s College, I chose the unit of ‘The Dictionary and the Development of the English Language’ as I wasn’t interested in twentieth century literature. Virginia Woolf, Yeats and Conrad and their postmodern perspective did not include me and I resented their self-righteous libertarianism. Alone in this feeling in the class of 1991, I ended up having to attend Wednesday afternoon seminars at Senate House and having my one-to-one tutorials with an eccentric expert on everything Oxford English Dictionary: Professor Jane Bradbury. The more I learned, the more questions I had and I ended up having more history lessons than philological ones.
But why has the English Language been so important to me, a mixed race Brit? Maybe it’s because, due to caste, politics and class, my family were disinherited, excluded from the cultures and countries in which they were born. My dad, as an African Asian, had a working knowledge of fifteen languages (commonplace back then) but, as a Hindu who renounced his faith to become a Christian, he could no longer rely on that culture. He made a decision that his children would not ‘know’ a language which would make them aware of their being outcasts. When East Africa kicked out non-nationals, the only country that remained ‘open’ for him was the UK. So English has had to bear the multiplicity of my cultural heritage, its rage and passion. My paintbox of expression has been confined to its grammar, syntax and vocabulary.
Maybe that was why I was drawn to the USA, the youngest of the English diasporas, where everyone is a foster child with a hybrid history, where words are formed to fit the moment, where syntax decides political power. And maybe that is when I became aware of the limits of my beloved Oxford English Dictionary.
As a reviewer of rap and grime for over three decades, I have found the most vital expression and thinking in the rhythms, reverbs and reappropriated diction of these so-called street poets. But they don’t rap on street corners anymore so why does the name stick? Is their diction too explosive for libraries? Does it stain the carpet? Leave a bad smell? They have consumed their oppressor’s dictionary, fried it up with lost bits of old cultures, strong flavours reminiscent of an old home to produce a new language, new thinking, new flavours. Yet where is the official record of its development and birth? The only archives are mixtapes and street slang texts till it produces coin. Does economy alone dictate when a language becomes real?
Becoming standard has never been such an existential dilemma. The English language became ubiquitous due to its fluid ability to absorb new elements and eliminate redundant forms of communication. But we forget how English was built on trade, culture and politics. There is nothing ‘English’ about the English language; it has always been the product of resistance, oppression, poets, eulogies, songs and oral histories, of business over religion, religion over politics. However, as the world seems to be spinning faster in terms of geopolitical changes, language is struggling to keep up. The Oxford English Dictionary keeps trying to get a peak, trying to be ‘inclusive’ but by the time they clock on, the word is already a cliché. You know it’s a cliché if it’s in the OED. But it’s not a cliché if you are white or working in the dominant culture. No – it’s correct, political. If you are a writer and writing for a different audience, however, coming from a different culture, it’s the equivalent of writing Chaucer without the rhyme or structure with zero morality in the cautionary tale.
Amanda Gorman recently out-tweeted even the President, almost out-memed Bernie Saunders. Aged twenty two, she performed her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ (taken from her yet-unpublished, currently-sold-out eponymous poetry anthology debut) at Biden’s inauguration ceremony. It was outstanding, fit for purpose, worthy of praise. She is young, beautiful, talented, on message. The lines that really resonated for me were: ‘’if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.’ Simple anaphora yet profoundly loaded. Yet there came a flood of critique from black poets regarding her poem ‘including cliches’. Cliches such as: ‘’And so we lift our gazes’, ‘we must first put our differences aside’, ‘for while we have our eyes on the future,’ ‘to author a new chapter’. Of course it included cliches! If you are a poet, the best you can hope for is that you become a cliché! Most of our cliches are Shakespearean. To be a cliché, is the highest honour; it at least proves you existed, you brought something to the table. All metaphors have shelf-lives.
Amanda should have spoken in cliches. Cliches may not be examples of original thought but they are examples of communal thought and, at an inauguration ceremony, nothing is more important. She’s not going to be performing cutting-edge gangsta lyrics at such an event. The formality of it requires cliches, structure, consideration of past forms and future promises but in language all can access. It’s not the Grammys; she’s not coming up against Kendrick Lamarr. Being black or brown does not make you a contra militia, another cliché, any more than being white makes you a fascist. But it did make me think. Why was it so newsflash-worthy for a young black woman to be heralded as plain successful, as in institutionally successful? Why is it so wrong to be right for once?
Being oppressed isn’t being miserable. Being oppressed is knowing you never have enough time, money or opportunities to develop your talent, to show yourself because you have to struggle with a thousand other things just to keep your head up. So being oppressed is not ranting or raging, it is actually behaving under a regime that will not acknowledge how it is oppressing you. Being oppressed is flattening yourself under the weight of a dominance that silences your voice, irons out your humanity.
This is unhealthy for so many reasons. Our parents meant well; they did it because they didn’t want us to be punished/live in fear for being less-than, dirty – like they ever had been. They did it to appease the racists. But guess what? Racism is not something we can appease. It is not a god we can offer sacrifices to and it will be satisfied. No – the more we act in fear, the more we cower, the more it comes chasing like the feral narcissistic dog it is. Because it knows it’s done wrong and cannot process its shame so never, ever ‘let it slide’. Racism never slides. It sticks. It festers and spreads. `if we just shut up and put up maybe it will just go away…except it doesn’t. It grows because we have just shown we can tolerate it. Until a boundary is put up, a violation will just get worse, never better.
If only literature was the land of the free where so-called poets and authors would break limits and notions of perfection. If we never screw up, we never fail. If we never fail, we will never, ever succeed. We need to take risks, we need to learn lessons and that means humiliation or tripping up at some point. Maybe the pandemic will erase the drive for commercial success and make us focus on higher goals: the creation of more authentic voices. But to have authentic voices, there needs to be a freedom with language and an acceptance that language breaks, shift, shapes and transforms to bear the weight of new life, new stories. If only society would do the same. Conforming behaviour will not earn you a space in the workplace any more than following the zeitgeist of whatever makes a rebel that week.
The dictionary has come a long way from defining other races and cultures as ‘coloured’, ‘black’, ‘minorities’ to people (we’re actually people now!) of colour not a measured statistic related to white majority. But we are still a mere plural noun. The dictionary also records the crimes of humanity.
We need to stop saying we are ‘bad’ just for asserting our natural human rights. We are not being ‘bad’ by being ourselves and occupying space, giving ourselves time to process and articulate what we want. We are not being ‘bad’ when we say ‘no’. And being a ‘badass’ doesn’t mean I am extreme or intimidating; it means society thinks a woman of colour who asserts herself is wrong. It is the antithesis of vernacular to show the resistance where ‘bare’ in Standard English means scarce, nothing there, naked, in common parlance today it means ‘very, a lot’. ‘Enz’ means your neighbourhood, ‘peak’ is the pits, ‘vexed’ refers back to the fourteenth century French definition of to harass or annoy. ‘Extra’ is a pain, a burden, an annoyance while ‘boydem’ as opposed to mandem, refers to the police. It is indeed ‘batty’ that batty in the OED means mad, insane but in common discourse, since 1930, was also a pronunciation of bottom. Its meaning now is the Jamaican slang for homosexual relations. Or that ‘Man dem’ cannot be found in the OED yet the French historical ‘mandement’ can: that which is commanded, a commandment or order (usually written); (Scottish) a formal authorisation for one person to act on behalf of another – since Middle English/French days. In our unpublished dictionary it means ‘male friends’
But the English language doesn’t belong to anyone. It doesn’t belong to the streets, to the libraries, to the government, to the wealthy, to the archives, to the masses, to the collector. It doesn’t ‘belong’ to the English seeing as the ‘English’, a bunch of mongrels from any number of nations and ethnicities purloined bits and bats from up to twenty different languages. It doesn’t belong to a time or place. We belong to it. For English is an ex-pat, she never settles down. As soon as you think you’ve nailed her, she’s off, pursuing a heavier heart, a greater story, a more fantastic vision of worlds unseen unclaimed.
What the OED does is no less than the official police report, the crime number for each and every infidelity and new offence. It is the births, marriages and deaths register for every word. If you don’t report language’s transgression, more fool you – she will consume an entire ideology and economy before breakfast and vomit out an entirely new one before high tea.
I disagree with bell hooks and the poet Adrienne Rich (in her poem ‘The Burning of Paper Instead of Children’) who view the English language as ‘the oppressor’s language’. The oppressor doesn’t own language; the educated, the literate, the articulate own it while it’s the streets that make it. But I agree with her when she says ‘it is not the English language that hurts me but what the oppressors do with it, how they shape it to become a territory that limits and defines, how they make it a weapon that can shame, humiliate, colonize.’ I celebrate the affirmation of hooks when she says: ‘I imagine that the moment they (the slaves) realized the oppressor’s language, seized and spoken by the tongues of the colonized, could be a space of bonding was joyous. For in that recognition was the understanding that intimacy could be restored, that a culture of resistance could be formed that would make recovery from the trauma of enslavement possible….Learning English, learning to speak the alien tongue was one way enslaved Africans began to reclaim their personal power within a context of domination.’ And by reappropriating the language to fit their own emerging, defiant humanity, they changed it and enriched humanity itself. We can know, we can empathise, we can share because of that exchange.
The English language doesn’t belong to anyone; humanity belongs to it. The more vital the story, the more fiercely her blood flows through it. The transgressions of language barriers break under the weight of too much life. There is a reason why it is the most powerful and used language in the world; its structure allows for our flaws, our successes, our heartbreaks, our passions, our potential. The English language is a true record of civilisation, the real crimes, the real times. The OED is the policeman forever trying to catch up, monitor, contain and control. But, make no mistake, even if unrecorded, the English language will evolve and evade all efforts at dogma and form. Syntax rules, ideology crumbles. The English language does not hang about waiting for the officials to catch up – but we do ourselves and humanity an injustice when we do not honour and record the rich heritage she brings us. OED, please catch up. You’re missing all the big moments in history.
The Oxford English Dictionary
‘The Hill We Climb – an Inaugural Poem’ by Amanda Gorman and Oprah Winfrey, Chatto & Windus, 2021
‘Teaching to Trangress’ by bell hooks, Language : “Language: Teaching New Worlds/New Words” chapter 11, Routledge, 1994.
‘The Will To Change’ by Adrienne Cecile Rich, W.W. Norton & Company,1971