I’m writing this in the middle of the night, agitated to sleeplessness, worrying about the fate of unfashionable words. There are words being bullied out of parlance, just like the unpopular kid at school, contemplative beyond her years, with hair frizzier than society would like, sidelined in favour of the glossier, easier-to-categorise, slightly more stupid girls (there might be a smidgen of personal history creeping in here). There are words in our lexicon suffering the lash of society’s truculent tongue, impatient as it is with ‘old-fashioned’ assonances and excessive syllables. There are brilliant, useful words lurking knock-kneed in the margins of our diction, wondering why we can’t see the value of their contribution.
I would like to be asleep. And isn’t that such a lovely word? But sadly, people are increasingly ‘sleeping’ instead of ‘asleep’. Have you noticed that? The verb is squashing the adjective out of use, and our language is the blander for it. Sleep isn’t an activity; it’s a state a person enters. To say “I was sleeping” does not at all do justice to the state you describe; one doesn’t actively do sleep for eight and a half hours – what an exhausting notion! ‘Asleep’ is the word needed here; it describes an inactive state of being into which a person falls. Not me, though; not tonight.
‘Asleep’ belongs to a fun family of adjectives, hardly any of which are heard today without a tone of embarrassed irony: aflutter, awake, ablaze, afoot, aglow, ashore, afloat and so on. These words can be thought of as an alternative to prepositional phrases, if you like…if it helps…if anybody cares. A house can be ‘on fire’, you see, in the prepositional phrase, or ablaze, in the adjectival form. A cadaver can be found ‘on the shore’ or ‘ashore’. How bleak this all is. I apologise; lack of sleep makes me macabre.
And some nights I lie awake staring at my ceiling, muttering to myself about the future of ‘might’. When did everyone stop using ‘might’? I never have. Never. Yet it’s being rejected and people are ‘may’ing all over the place, regardless of context. “I may have a cocktail now.” Well, yes, of course you may, but might you? Somehow ‘may’ has become the catch-all verb indicating possibility, and the world has forgotten that ‘might’ exists too, and can actually serve a purpose. It’s not incorrect to use ‘may’ to express possibility, unless you’re doing it in the past tense; that is wrong. ‘May’ can only be used to indicate future outcomes. “I may have drunk too many cocktails” is incorrect; you might have drunk too many cocktails. (Silly you.) You can say “I may have a cocktail”, then, but why choose that when the verb has connotations – and you don’t have anything to connote here; you’re just possibly going to have a cocktail – of permission?
That’s why your teacher used to say “yes, you may” when you asked to pop to the loo in the middle of a lesson; she was saying yes, you’re allowed to. “May I have your daughter’s hand in marriage?” is a clear request for permission, which my own dear father is yet to hear (another cause of sleeplessness, no doubt…If someone could plump my pillows and bring me a brandy at this point, I’d be very grateful; I’m agitated) but would surely answer with “yes you may, but if you ever cause her any unhappiness of any kind, I’ll…”
But that’s a separate issue.
“The phonelines are now closed but you may still be charged,” say Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly, and Dermot O’Leary and Davina McCall and Cat Deeley and Tess Daley, and all those other shiny talent show presenters whose names, it occurs to me now, appear to be anagrams. (Are they all from one test tube? The Tessina O’Donnelleary McDeeley-Daley Auto-Germinator of Saturday Night Talent Show Presenters? Crikey, my mind is whirring; I’ll never get to sleep now.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with their using ‘may’ in this context, but why not ‘might’? I just wonder, that’s all, here in the quiet of night, when everyone’s voices and words from the day ring in my ears, why the word has fallen out of use. Who led that revolution?
What irks me is that ‘might’ is by far the simpler verb to use in the context of simply expressing a possible outcome. We might still be charged if we call after the phonelines have closed. Simple. I suspect what we have here is a case of ‘may’ sounding a bit, you know, ‘posher’ than ‘might’, and that this is all part of the problem we have of, you know – how can I say it without sounding rude? – not-very-posh people wanting to sound cleverer and making misguided word choices that actually, sadly, have the opposite effect.
It’s this sort of thing: ‘myself ’ instead of simply ‘me’; ‘yourself’ instead of ‘you’; ‘the train now arriving alongside platform 18 is the service to…’ instead of the simpler ‘the train at platform 18 is for…’. Word warriors – or should that be word worriers? – like me would always advocate choosing the simplest word to achieve clarity of communication. ‘Might’ does the job of expressing possibility, so use it, and don’t worry about it not sounding as pretty as ‘may’; it’s quietly efficient, just like that girl at school. It all goes horribly wrong when people try to glean extra effect and purpose from one word when there are already plenty of words to choose from, lurking in those margins, ready to serve.
And now it’s way beyond midnight, and I’m still lying here, while you’re asleep. And there’s another word bullied out of use: ‘midnight’. It has become ‘12am’, quite incorrectly. Midnight isn’t morning or evening, so it can’t be ante meridiem; midnight it is the point at which post gives way to ante. (Yes, that’s right, that frizzy haired girl was listening in her Latin lessons, while the glossy girls scratched boys’ names into their desks at the back.) And ‘noon’, lovely ‘noon’, known these days as 12pm – even on the BBC News! – which cannot exist, given that ‘pm’ is post meridiem: after noon, which is 12. If you don’t like the magic, the logic and the lovely sound of ‘noon’, plump for ‘midday’ at least. Anything, anything; just not 12pm. I implore you.
After this night of tossing and turning and hallucinating the letters that make up the names of television presenters – blurry Ds and Ms and Ls swimming across my ceiling and walls – I’m spent. Please keep your voices down. I might well be asleep until noon, if I may.