When language idiosyncrasies go viral

One question that has long puzzled me is how language – let’s be kind and call them ‘idiosyncrasies’ rather than ‘errors’ – seem to be adopted countrywide in such a short space of time.

For instance, I wonder if you noticed a strange language virus that spread like flu in winter a while back? It was a particularly inexplicable variant on the phrase, ‘The thing is…’.

‘The thing is…’, you would explain until recently, ‘that I actually don’t like him very much…’ Or, ‘The thing is that the cat has always been a fussy eater, whatever she might say!’ The… thing… is… that… something or another has happened or is true. The simplest of English phrases of the kind understood and constructed by your average pre-school child. But no.

What has that simple phrase become?  ‘The thing is, is that…’, says everyone now, from the girl in the corner shop to Jeremy Clarkson. Particularly Jeremy Clarkson. ‘The thing is, is that.’ Whence cometh that extra ‘is’, for heavens sake? What is it doing there? Why does anyone think it necessary? Who started it? And, more to the point, why do people unthinkingly copy it?

Another pet hate of mine falls into a similar category of ‘things people say which make no sense’.

Teenage girl saunters up to the counter in Café Nero. ‘Can I help you?’, enquires the barister. ‘Er, yeah, can I get a skinny latté..?’ is the request.

Get? Get! No! You can have a skinny latté by all means, but it’s the barister who will be doing the getting of same. Unless of course you want to swap places and go and get your own coffee, you… you…

Sorry, yes I know. I shouldn’t get stressed about it. I should just let it all wash over me. I shouldn’t get annoyed because it’s only a transient fashion of the kind to be expected – and even applauded – in a living, vibrant language.

It’s just, can anyone tell me – how do these things spread so quickly? And why?

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6 thoughts on “When language idiosyncrasies go viral

  1. You and your gripes; I could have a go at you for using “which” instead of “that” :-D

    Language variation and shift is a surprisingly rapid process, especially when it’s associated with particular age or socioeconomic groups (generally youth groups as they create a lot of the variation). But don’t think that television spreads it; television is more a barometer of existing movements.

    • Er, I think you’ll find ‘which’ is perfectly correct, thank you! :-D

      It is the speed of the variation which I find both fascinating and surprising. And no, I don’t think that TV has as great an influence as people tend to think, but surely it must play some part in spreading these fashions?

  2. The Olympics are being screened at the moment and events now happen in stadiums rather than stadia, people contribute to forums not fora. So why then don’t people say datums rather than data if they can’t cope with the plural ending? So the thing is…

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