My seven-year-old daughter is learning how to write stories at school. It's a charming exercise, and it's rewarding for me to see how she picks up the basics of the trade - the title, the setting, the plot, the ending - and how she feeds on her (fertile) imagination and thinks up and writes ever more fantastical descriptions and denouements.
I feel a not unreasonable paternal pride in all this, but I also get a little anxious. What if she begins to believe that this is the only way in which stories can unfold? What if she thinks that in media res is a very silly way to begin?
It’s an anxiety that is at the heart of something larger: what if she, as she grows older, begins to believe in stereotypes and stereotypical formulations?
This is perhaps where it begins. Who knows where it might end?
Last year, they were teaching her idioms in school. Perfectly acceptable English lessons they were, and, in no time, Oishi was not merely familiar with the whole range of ‘at the drop of a hat’, ‘on cloud nine’, ‘let your hair down’ etc, but was very gravely asking her mother to ‘hold her horses’ if she tried to hurry her with her lunch. There was a phase when our girl spoke almost entirely in the se idioms.
Every time she uttered one, I would cringe. What if she, as she grew older, continued to believe that this is how English should be written and spoken? What if she failed to keep herself immune from the pervasive vandalisation of the language, of its usurping by the hegemony of American marketing speak? What if she turned out to absorb, without irony, our ugly, 21st century idioms (and the ugly, older idioms) and have ‘feedback’, ‘revert’, ‘on the same page’ and 'aligned’ as part of her core vocabulary?
I don't hope for too much for my daughter, and I don't genuinely mind how she turns out to be (a dilettante is perfectly all right, if that's what makes her happy), but I confess I'd rather she grew up to learn the distinction between the pathetic corporate speak that masquerades as language and the language itself.
I mean, it’s perhaps all right for a seven-year-old to speak in clichés. But to be an adult and to say “I had a blast” when all you mean is that you had a good time… You tell me. The scarier thing, I suppose, is to not realise that there is something disgraceful about saying things like this.
Ah, do you think I am being disingenuous? No, a dilettante could well be able to tell the difference. It depends on what sort of dilettante one is.
Clichés (which is what the idioms have become now) are borrowed thought and borrowed feeling, and anyone with any degree of self respect ought to be very wary of them. Learning to think for oneself and being able to express thought precisely is one of the attributes of being civilised. We tend to forget that too often, but I’d rather my girl remembered.
So a lot of her learning (if I have anything to do with it) will have to be what the Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz called a process of “unlearning”. But you can't unlearn clichés before you have first learnt them. Picasso was — as almost always — right: you can’t distort a line (and be original) till you have first mastered how to draw it straight.
But it’s such a pity if you end up drawing straight lines all your life — or think unthinkingly, or, without a trace of irony, speak in rented thoughts and articulate second-hand feelings.
So the idioms can stay for now. I shall hold my horses. But I shall be on cloud nine if she grows up to respect staying away from such phrases.
The story as she is learning to write it will also do just fine for now. And later on? Well, it will be hard (or a tough ask) to make her aware of the fraudulence of stereotypes.
But then, isn’t parenting always like that?