Thursday, 17 February 2011

Chef-speak and the demise of English

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington and James Becker)

A tiny bit of a rant that’s been festering for some time.

Illiteracy now appears to be the norm in Britain. Thousands of children emerge from what passes for our education system apparently barely able to read or write and incapable of doing even the simplest arithmetic without recourse to an electronic calculator. And why, one is entitled to wonder, are we in this position? The answers, I believe, are simple enough.

First, in many schools it is no longer fashionable or politically correct to insist that children learn to create proper sentences, employ accurate pronunciation, or even to spell words correctly. It apparently fosters unhealthy competition, or stifles creative outpouring, or does not allow the little darlings to ‘find themselves’, if children’s work is corrected. I find several expressions, the most polite of which is ‘complete nonsense’, springing inevitably to mind.

Second, almost all types of medium which display the written word, from the sign outside the local greengrocer’s shop – always fertile ground for the misplaced apostrophe – to television advertising and newspaper reports, are slightly, but consistently, illiterate. When even well-educated people see more signs advertising ‘apple’s’ than those offering ‘apples’, they probably begin to wonder. Children fresh out of school, wonderfully self-aware and creative in their outlook, but unable to spell any word longer than six letters, have not the slightest notion which form is correct, and probably see no difference between them.

Of course, everybody – and especially an author – has to acknowledge that English is a living language, evolving on a daily basis as new words and expressions are added and old or obsolete expressions fade from common usage. Nevertheless, some standards should and must be applied, or the language will degenerate into the kind of ill-spelt shorthand so prevalent in electronic mail and, even worse, text messages on mobile phones. U no i rite.

But perhaps the worst culprit, which can be observed every day on our television screens, is the curse of ‘chef-speak’. In my opinion, the best place for a chef is out of sight in a kitchen somewhere, ideally preparing something that tastes as good as it looks rather than something that just looks like a picture on a plate, and not on my TV screen. But ever since chefs became personalities rather than just cooks, the English language has begun to suffer from galloping ‘chef-speak’, as transitive verbs have inexplicably become intransitive. No longer, apparently, can one simply ‘boil an egg’, because ‘boil’ now has to be followed by, usually, ‘up’, but sometimes ‘off’ and occasionally ‘down’.

A chef cannot ‘reduce a sauce’; he has to ‘reduce it down’. Give him anything at all to cook and he will, without reference to a dictionary or a book of basic grammar, proceed to ‘measure it up’, ‘weigh it off’, ‘separate it out’, ‘fry it off’, ‘bake it up’, ‘baste it down’, ‘cook it off’, ‘roast it down’, ‘grill it off’ and even, I swear I once heard, ‘microwave it up’.

And the problem is that, because these chefs are on television, people seem to believe that what they are saying is correct from both a culinary and a grammatical standpoint. Now interior designers and TV property makeover teams are getting in on the act, ‘stripping off the wallpaper’, ‘sanding down the floorboards’ and eventually, no doubt, ‘painting up the doors’ and ‘decorating up the lounge’.

So what can we do about it? Probably not a great deal. The fact is that greengrocers are interested in selling potatoes, carrots and apples, not in spelling their names correctly. And when Civil Servants are so poorly-educated and illiterate that they are officially instructed not to use apostrophes at all in case they use them incorrectly, the rot really has set in. As long as our schools continue to fail to meet the standards of education that were considered minimal forty years ago, the overall standard of literacy is almost bound to fall.

The last straw, or the final nail, depending upon your cliché of choice, will be when illiterate teachers (and there are plenty of them out there) begin correcting grammatically-accurate work submitted by their better-read pupils. Then we all might as well give up and either head for the hills or surrender to the inevitable, cos by then it aint gonna matter no more. No wot I meen?


  1. I received a 99.5 on a fifth-grade spelling test because I misspelled the word doughnut. I knew for sure there was no 'ugh' in the word because I had just read the donut box that morning. Even as a kid, I was angry that we were being "dumbed down" by Madison Avenue.

    My least favorite word...bling!

  2. Hi Charlie

    There was a recent newspaper article about a group of graduate students, not undergraduates, in Britain, none of whom could spell even simple words like 'cemetery'. I've seen some old American school examination papers for 15 and 16 year old children, and I freely admit that I don't think I could pass them.


  3. I am horifyed buy the standerd off writting off meny teechers in skule theas days. No wander kids cant write in sentances. Handwritting, capitols, paragaffes, even a sheff woud blush.
    There is so much more to say on this subject, but I have to go and teach ...

  4. Leigh, I hope that was as painful to write as it was to read! :)

    Peter, For some reason, I constantly misspell the word Rhythm. Every time I type it, the damn spellcheck calls me an idiot. It's such an easy word. It must be a mental thing.
    PS. I'm a musician.

  5. When I was a young teenager at Grammar school in Portsmouth (over fifty years ago), I used to write 'hookie' notes for my mates. That was because I had an adult hand and could spell diarrhoea. Cost my mates a fag every time, but I was popular. How many teenagers could do that today I wonder?