In the normal run of inky things, the front page of the Daily Star should be picked up with a pair of tongs and held a good distance from the nose. Today’s noisome offering is: “A load of bull.”
This is not, as you might suppose, a final snapping of patience about Brexit, the gift that keeps on taking away. No, this is the Daily Star turning up late to the party with a story about how veganism might affect our language.
Anyone who has glanced at the Star through half a disdainful eye will not be surprised to learn that the first word of the story is “snowflakes”. For this is a newspaper that spies snowflakes wherever it casts an angry headline. Sometimes these are real snowflakes intent on bringing a hell-freeze (or a bit of winter); more often, sadly, they are young people smeared with that offensive description.
“Snowflakes are out to bash common British such as taking a bull by the horns…” the paper fumes over its breakfast sausages. This story about how language might have to adapt to reflect the rising number of vegans surfaced yesterday. The Star’s take is summed up by its “World’s gone mad” strapline.
At Swansea University an academic called Dr Shareena Hamzah has researched whether language might have to adapt as more people stop eating meat.
“If veganism forces us to confront the realities of food’s origins, then this increased awareness will undoubtedly be reflected in our language and literature,” Dr Hamzah suggests.
“The increased awareness of vegan issues will filter through our consciousness to produce new modes of expression.”
The Star seems to have missed the part where Dr Hamzah said it was unlikely such phrases would disappear altogether, presumably because it doesn’t fit the “world’s gone mad” scenario.
To take the bull by the horns is, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable reminds us, “To face danger or a challenge boldly”. A good and assertive phrase, although it does have its roots in bullfighting, which is often frowned on nowadays.
Another example is “bringing home the bacon”, which means to succeed. Brewer’s adds that the expression dates to the habit of trying to catch greased pigs or to the “Dunmow flitch”. Happily married couples who had lived long together without quarrelling were said to be “eating Dunmow bacon”. This dates to a custom from the Middle Ages when a man could go to Dunmow church in Essex , kneel on two sharp stones at the door and swear that for “12 months and a day he had never had a household brawl or wished himself unmarried”. This entitled him to a flitch of Dunmow bacon.
That sounds like a worthwhile treat and I’d take the trip to Essex myself, but my generally non-quarrelsome wife is vegetarian; and my daughter’s just turned vegan, so I’d better be careful what I say.
Other linguistic examples are “killing two birds with one stone”, which Dr Hamzah suggests could be replaced with “feeding two birds with one scone”.
Peta, the animal rights lobby group, suggests that we should replace the phrase “to flog a dead horse” with to “feed a fed horse”. That variant isn’t bad, although brutality can empower language. Feeding a fed horse is kinder than flogging a dead one, but it doesn’t have the same forceful meaning.
Brewer’s sums the dead horse phrase up as: “To attempt to revive a question already settled or worn thin, thereby wasting time and effort.” That has a certain austere elegance, I’d say.
I am not sure that we should take too much notice of Peta, for they are always seeking to cause a meat-free stir about something or other. The other day they suggested that the village of Wool in Dorset should be renamed “Vegan Wool”, even though the place has been called that for a millennium, and the name has nothing to do with sheep as it comes from the old word for well or spring.
And, to close, I wonder when we will stop flogging a dead Brexit.