It’s an occupational hazard, but I have been mulling over the use of language again. The word loss seems to cover how I feel.

The local newspaper included the howler ‘would of’ in a small article. There’s been no apology – they probably haven’t even realised the problem. An understandable mistake perhaps for non-readers, but nevertheless this is a newspaper not a Year 7 history assignment. (See the simple line of error: Would have contracts to would’ve, which is misheard as would of).

I could too easily reveal myself to be an old curmudgeon if I go on like this. I remind myself that language changes and always has, and for every loss there is a gain. What would we do without post-truth and selfie and duh?

Besides, my mulling has brought to mind a story from nineteenth century Africa. I tend to collect stories about Tanzania because I once lived there and we are all narcissistic to a degree. I came across the lovely words in this one as part of my research during my doctoral degree.

The story is about a newspaper reporter who would never have used would of. Many British people – and us Commonwealthers – could already know most of the story. Does this resonate: ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ Or maybe that dates me too – schoolkids might not be taught about Empire these days.

The presumed Dr Livingstone was a missionary and explorer in east Africa. He left from Bagamoyo to save heathen souls and find the source of The Nile. On this vast continent he travelled through territory where the creationary gods offered people a choice and the Maasai chose the spear. The missionary venture was thus either brave or stupid depending on where you stand.

The white missionary in the dark heart of Africa was gone too long, was in need of saving and at one stage, truly, every schoolchild of the Empire knew the words of recovery on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, said on the 10th of November 1871 (or made up because they sounded good in the newspaper article!).

Henry Morton Stanley, a journalist from the New York Herald had set out on an expedition to track the missionary down. The statement presuming the identity of the man in Ujiji does not seem to have been delivered with any note of irony – though Stanley and Livingstone were the only white men within hundreds of miles.

Even when this event was widely remembered, the poetry of Livingstone’s own voice was lost. He wrote a letter to the man who funded the expedition, in which he describes his gratitude, and his own forlorn self.

I was a mere ruckle of bones.

Does anyone else mourn the loss of ruckle? Will I be able to weave it into my writing without looking like a pretentious poser?

Alas, I am a curmudgeon. We have lost so many ways of using our words. This from another newspaper article, nineteenth century Australian, used I might add in a political report: the convulsive language of sorrow.

Convulse at will.




The image is of the illustration that appeared in the French edition of Henry Morton Stanley’s ‘How I found Livingstone.’ Comment j’ai retrouvé Livingstone. Paris: Hachette, 1876.


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