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Hanging on to our heritage.

THE English language was formerly a vast country of open plains over which vast herds of pedants, pernicketies and didacts roamed freely. Any misspellings, mispronunciations, punctuation errors and Americanisms were surrounded and stamped upon to the thunderous roar of righteous indignation.

In those days we verbal dinosaurs ruled our world even though the small furry mammals of the Plain English Campaign and the Apostrophe Protection Society had started squeaking about the coming ruin.

Now we're down to a few half-starved pedantosaurs and literatotops on a reserve manned by Homo Illiteratus, a man of few words and all of them badly spelt (or spelled; both are correct, I think you'll find).

Thus has the world moved on. The air is now filled with the grating mechanical sound of texts and twitters, a grey place where the song of the correctly-placed comma, subordinate clause, well-turned aphorism, semi and full colon and fine examples of the subjunctive are heard no more. Wresting our gaze away from this sorry scene, can we consider briefly (notice the avoidance there of a potential split infinitive) the word 'heritage'? We verbodactyls may be regarded as 'heritage' ourselves.

"Look, Daddy, I think that wordsmith is trying to speak." "Nonsense, son. They don't have the kit. Besides, it says on the cage this is a dialectician." "Why are they nearly extinct, Daddy?" "We don't use the word extinct, son. We say dead."

Heritage is everywhere, attaching itself irritatingly to everything like iron filings to a magnet.

If you can bolt the word on to a thing you immediately give it cachet, stature, regality, permanence, stability. A heritage sausage, for instance, is more likely to taste good than a common or garden one. It's also going to cost a lot more. It's heritage, you see.

Heritage no longer relates to things historical and cultural. It has found its way into the natural world and it's quite possible that somebody, somewhere, will be wanting to preserve a toadstool or elderberry because it's part of our heritage. Even in history, the mundane and prosaic can be labelled heritage now.

A small mound of crumbling stones might have been found to have been a Bronze Age lavatory. In the winking of an eye it becomes the centrepiece in the National Bronze Age Lavatory Experience (children and unwaged half price). Industrially, a heritage centre will spring into being round some scrap iron against which Telford or Brunel once banged an ankle. Heritage is traditionally (traditionally - there's an irony) anything that was around a long time ago, is still around, and somebody wants it to stay around a while longer.

It applied originally to something of value - a fancy folk dance or song, a recipe for a cake, a canal aqueduct, a bothy or sunken garden.

Now, nobody seems clear in their minds what might be valuable. Is my little black and white telly heritage? Not sure, so let's keep it just in case.

More and more things are falling into this huge heritage holdall - pubs, cities, railway lines, bathrooms, cars, credit unions, coastlines, hotels, newspapers, parks, footpaths, even cycle hubs. No, I'm not kidding: Sturmey Archer, famous for three-speed cycle gears, has a heritage website and a very good one it is too, if you like that kind of thing.

Castles, monasteries, abbeys and stately homes are long-established repositories of heritage as anyone who tries knocking one down will soon find out.

Our ancestors had no qualms about smashing these buildings apart and rebuilding in a completely different style if necessity called for a new clerestory or barbican.

Archeologists and historians have no end of fun trying to piece together what happened, when and why. The jigsaw of the past always seems to have a mysterious piece or two missing.

But we can be a bit prissy about heritage. Many's the time you'll wander through a stately home and be warned not to sit on the chairs or walk on the carpets, even though both items were clearly designed to be sat upon and walked over respectively.

Nobody's really sure these days what is junk and what is genuine 'heritage' - that is, something we definitely don't want to lose because our lives and the lives of those that follow on will be diminished in some way by its loss. Because we've lost the plot a bit, we keep everything and we keep stumbling over the things we've saved, uncertain of their merit. It's like trying to get into granddad's garden shed, only to discover the old devil has filled it and is working on stuffing the cellar, attic and living room too. I just wish we were as precious about the English language.

CAPTION(S):

* MY WORD: The Serengeti, where the big beasts still roam, munching contentedly on the heritage.
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Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Feb 10, 2011
Words:796
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