Because the English tend to take their language for granted, there is no equivalent of the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year. Over there, “subprime” has just squeezed home from “Googleganger” (someone who shares your name when searched on Google) and “tapafication” the tendency of restaurants to serve small portions).
A leading, if slightly obscure, nomination for the English word of the year would be the verb “to blatter”. Named after the international football supremo Sepp Blatter, it is an onomatopoeic term it sounds like a wet cowpat landing on a stone floor and refers to the act of releasing a rather unpleasantly sloppy public statement. For example, when asked how women’s football could be popularised, the Fifa president blattered brilliantly with the answer, “tighter shorts”.
The latest splash on the media cowshed floor concerns the appointment of an Italian Fabio Capello to become manager of the England football team. In the very week when Capello gets down to work, learning English and being taught the difference between the Hammers and the Gunners, Sepp confided to the world’s press that he found it “surprising that the motherland of football has ignored a sacrosanct law or belief that the national team manager should be from the same country as the players.”
What a hopeless misunderstanding of the motherland this remark represents. For the English, it is true, football is important: it reflects, even for the non-fan, the national soul. The identity of the England manager is for this very reason intimately bound up with our sense of self.
To put it brutally, the English do not want to look into the mirror that is national football and see Sam Allardyce staring back at them. Or Steve McClaren. Or Harry Redknapp. Or Steve Bruce. The assorted Steves, Sams and Harrys of the English game may have the heart of an ox but they look like an ox, too. The good-hearted, red-faced sincerity they exude as they stand, bellowing, on the touchline, makes us feel ever so slightly embarrassed. They remind us of a part of the English character which, just at this particular moment, we would prefer to forget.
An English club team with foreign players feels better about itself. The past may be represented by the token crop-haired Englishman churning about the midfield but the present and the future lie with the skilful, twinkle-toed foreigners who are scoring or saving the goals. When these men play on our behalf, the fans are transported and commentators forget themselves. The players may come from Spain, Italy, Nigeria or America but somehow they represent the very best of the English game. In interviews, a few halting, ill-pronounced words from a foreign manager sound more authoritative and interesting than another gush of clichs from a Steve or a Harry.
Daringly, this assumption of the superiority of foreigners has been extended to the England manager’s job. First we tried an intelligent and dignified Scandinavian but he turned out to be too quiet and, in one area at least, not quite dignified enough.
Now, as from this week, we can look in the mirror and see staring back at us a handsome, dark-haired Italian with a strong jaw, expensive spectacles and smouldering just-one-cornetto eyes. As a professional, he is ruthlessly competitive; as a man, he is a sophisticated collector of modern art. Thanks largely to us, he is extremely rich. He is determined, bright, and has that all-important lack of humour. Surely even Sepp Blatter can see that Fabio Capello is now the perfect representative of the English national soul.
These are my unsung heroes
It is early January, but already birds are beginning to behave with the noisy, randy optimism of early spring. With perfect timing, Andrew Whitehouse of Aberdeen University’s department of anthropology has announced a study into the effect of birdsong on human lives.
“We want to hear from anyone with an interest in bird sounds or who has a story to tell about them,” says Dr Whitehouse.
Among the inevitable syklarks and nightingales, the report should find space for less showy contributions marking season and place the robin in winter, the joyful nagging of the chiffchaff, and that unsung hero of the urban landscape, the starling, left, chattering above the traffic’s roar.
* The former Labour adviser Derek Draper probably meant well when he revealed in a recent newspaper article that Gordon Brown was a closet admirer of the ITV talent show The X Factor. “Just over three weeks ago there was a passionate discussion over Sunday lunch at Chequers about the merits of Leon, winner of the recent series,” Draper let on. This exclusive was part of a plea to the PM to allow his more human side to shine through to the electorate. Apart from feeling passionate about trashy Saturday-night TV, Brown has other heart-warming characteristics, apparently. His office is chaotic, with files toppling off every surface and books lying around for those precious moments when Gordon can snatch a look at them. Is this portrait really meant to inspire confidence in our leader? When a cool, professional politician sets out to reveal a caring and personal side, it is a high-risk strategy and rarely convinces. Just ask Hillary Clinton.