There has been general gruntfuttocking in national newspaper letters columns about the use of language since John Humphrys made his ill-advised criticism of Melvyn Bragg over the reliance on the historic present in his Radio 4 series In Our Time.
The debate broadened in The Times into a wide-ranging whinge in which writers offered a predictable parade of the things heard on air that particularly irritated them. Some were from Humphrys’s own Today. (Why, to get in a gripe of my own, is this generally known as ‘the Today programme’? We don’t, after all, refer to ‘the PM programme’ or ‘the You and Yours programme’.) No one, I think, has mentioned what for me has long been one of the principal annoyances of Today. John and his colleagues are not to blame, since it is the interviewees that are at fault.
Almost all of them seem unable to answer a question requiring the answer ‘yes’ with that short and simple word. Doubtless considering that the reply has more gravitas, they say: “Very much so.” You don’t believe me? Just listen.
On matters of language, Humphrys would do well to have a word with Today’s sports man Garry Richardson, who last Friday told Jonathan Agnew, in respect of the England cricket team’s performance earlier this summer: “They looked lacklustre and disinterested.”
To describe a sports team as impartial is an egregious error — absurd as well — as Garry’s colleagues at BBC Radio Oxford in his early days might have told him. I know that in non-standard English ‘disinterested’ means the same as ‘uninterested’. I know, too, that all of us who have respect for language, and wish to see subtleties of meaning preserved, would never acknowledge in our own speech that these are synonyms.