Charles Moore reviews The King’s English by Kingsley Amis and is struck by the writer's love of his language
Kingsley Amis died in 1995, and this book was found among his effects (I can imagine him making good comic play with that usage), and published. Now it has been reissued, with a new introduction by Kingsley’s son, Martin, for the century its author never saw. The title refers to the famous book of the same name by the Fowler brothers, whom Amis greatly admired, but also to Amis himself: “The King” was a nickname which, as Martin puts it, his father “tolerated”. I remember Kingsley fantasising that he employed a gang of East End vigilantes who would go round to the door of pretentious writers and confront them with their literary crimes: “Don’t do it,” they would say menacingly, “The King don’t like it.”
There were many, many things which, in the use of English, the King didn’t like. This book contains a selection. Martin shows too much filial piety when he praises the book’s “spirit of reckless generosity”: it contains many more curses than blessings. The King is particularly alert to mindlessness and to dishonesty in the use of words. In the first category comes the addition of the ending “-athon” or “-thon” (derived from marathon) to describe anything that goes on for a bit, such as “telethon” or “talkathon”. (The same applies, though Amis doesn’t mention it, to the ending “-gate”, as in Watergate, appended to any scandal.) In the second category come words which try to fool the reader that something is being achieved when it isn’t. An example is the way we journalists claim to be “addressing” a question – thus helping to solve it – when in fact we are merely mentioning it.
But what does shine throughout is Kingsley’s love of his language. He is exact, but not pedantic. Even when making minute points about the letter of the law, he is really talking about its spirit. Amis’s approach reminds me of the best sort of guide to a great city. He has plenty of learning derived from formal study, but he also knows the place like the back of his hand. He loves the city’s perfections, but also its oddities, and even, because they make him laugh, its defects. He loves its past, but lives vigorously in its present. Rome, or Paris, or London cannot be defined: rather, they can be known – the more intimately the better. So it is with English.
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In this sense, at least, Amis is generous. He wants to help, and therefore to dare to be prescriptive: “It may be deplorable… to talk of correct and incorrect pronunciation, but surely most of those who refer to… a treatise on our language are looking for guidance rather than mere description”. The King offers such guidance, not only on pronunciation (“always” should be pronounced “AWL-whizz” not “AWLwaize”), but also on grammar, vocabulary, and all the rest. This is not really a “how to” book, or even a “how not to” book, but anyone who ever uses English will learn something from it. I learnt, among many other things, the astonishing history of the word avocado, which starts with Aztecs and testicles.