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Home > People

Potatoes and apostrophes

29 June 2005

This week the English language came under attack from two quite distinct but both very silly and patently self-serving quarters. On the one hand, linguist Kate Burridge, who has a book she wants people to buy, thinks the possessive apostrophe should be abolished. On the other hand, the British Potato Society, who have an industry they want to reinvigorate, want the term 'couch potato' removed from the OED. Neither are remotely serious about their stated aims, but at least the potato people are trying to push a halfway decent product.

Burridge is so desperate to duplicate the success of Lynne Truss that she would claim that the letter Q should be replaced with a swastika if she thought it'd pull in a few more readers. She may yet do it. In the meantime, as well as the apostrophe nonsense, she is campaigning, rigorously and transparently, to have the catchphrase 'yeah-but-no-but' introduced to the Collins Dictionary. But why stop there? If we're doing inane catchphrases, 'I'm free!' has certainly stood the test of time. As have 'mmm, Betty', 'I've started so I'll finish' and 'yabba-dabba-do', but unless Burridge genuinely wants our dictionaries to weigh half a tonne and be full of crap, then it's all just pointless time-wasting and shameless self-promotion. It is with this in mind that we have approached the OED with the following suggestion: 'to burridge', meaning to disseminate potentially provocative but wholly insincere opinions throughout the media in an effort to attract attention and, ideally, personal wealth.

With regard to the possessive apostrophe, you might just as well claim to want to abolish the question mark, or take all the handles off cups and doors. Why turn your back on something that makes one aspect of your life easier? As Lynne Truss so correctly and eloquently points out, dropping something merely because it is misused by morons would be 'capitulating to ignorance'. As would shelling out for Burridge's book, we fear. The final word on punctuation to Karen on the BBC talkboards: 'Languages would be very difficult to learn if we did not have punctuation, so lets keep it.' Here here Karen

Meanwhile, the potato people - essentially, a bunch of farmers and consultants, an MP and a TV cook - actually went so far as to march on Parliament on Monday in an attempt to oust the term 'couch potato' from the lexicon. Unfortunately, the publicity that has surrounded their antics has inadvertently reminded those who hadn't used it for years what a delightful and perfectly apposite expression it really is. It has also introduced the phrase to a whole new generation of sedentary, chip-fat twelve-year olds, who will hopefully latch onto it like a fist full of Pringle-grease and make it as great and as common a buzzword as it once was. If nothing else, that would show those bolshy farmers to stick to planting chips and not to tinker with things they plainly don't understand.

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