Lost for Words – a tough week for John Humphrys

(from June 09 – but still relevant!)

John Humphrys, respected journalist and host of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme found himself verbally scrambling twice this week.

Those of us who appreciated his timely and humourous book, ‘Lost for Words’, certainly felt for him.

First of all on Thursday Humphrys, in an interview with a Conservative MP was surprised to be asked, on air, how much he earned. He didn’t oblige. The Times said he ‘stuttered’. Fair enough.

Then on Friday, he was again struggling to find the right one when he let slip a swear word on air.

Although he apologised for it, he also, with the apology, exonerated himself on two counts:

Firstly, by claiming it was a simple error (mistakenly using one consonant instead of another. No, seriously! According to the Telegraph he said, ‘it came out slightly differently and had a ‘b’ at the front instead of an ‘r’), and secondly by bringing star witness, Professor of English Literature (University College London), John Sutherland to give evidence that the mistakenly pronounced word was nevertheless ‘entirely innocent.’

Has this particular ‘swear word’ therefore officially passed into general ‘innocent’ usage? Also, as with many of these public apologies, do the words ‘an apology’ mean anything beyond the suggestion of moral weakness in those who feel they may require one?

One of the most surprising assertions in ‘Lost for Words’ is that journalists themselves are the ‘guardians’ of language. I must admit, although I greatly enjoyed the book, and have recommended it, I did laugh then. I had wondered what the poets, novelists, playwrights, preachers and English professors might think of that.

His appeal to a Professor of English in this instance may reveal that he is no longer as certain, and that we can breathe a sigh of relief that journalists are not our linguistic guardians after all.

The moral of this story for anyone regularly involved in public speaking is surely the statement in the Book of Proverbs 10:19 ‘When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.’

I am not suggesting that Humphreys acknowledged transgression is so serious, but simply that even the most experienced communicators get lost for words, get tangled in linguistic gymnastics(!).

The funniest instance of this I ever heard was from Simon Pettit, a minister, who, when conducting a wedding gave out this mind-boggling spoonerism: ‘We are here today to witness Gareth and Nadine being joyfully loined in holy matrimony!’ The congregation tried, but could not repress their laughter for long until Simon was forced to ask, ‘Why are they laughing?’

Being lost for words can produce embarrassed silence, an outburst of laughter or the need for a humble apology all in one week, one day, even in one conversation! Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on good Mr. Humphrys after all.

A review of Humphrys’ ‘Lost for Words’ can be read here
You can also purchase ‘Lost for Words’ here

© 2009 Lex Loizides