Inch Forward To A Metric Language

In Tom Sharpe’s grotesque yet hilarious novel The Throwback, the protagonist Lockhart must find his natural father and, in order to fully meet the terms of his grandfather’s will, flog the man to within an inch of his life. With a suspect at hand and gagged, the officiators of the will begin to debate the practical meaning of the will’s instructions.

‘An inch of life,’ said Dr Magrew, ‘leaves us in fact two inches to play with, one before death and one after.’

After much humorous discussion, the solution is reached, and a crime scene outline is drawn on the wall around the soon-to-be victim, at the precise distance of one inch from the body.

‘Lockhart, my boy, you may go ahead and flog the wall up to the pencil line and you will have flogged the man to within an inch of his life.’

An inch of his life. Don’t give an inch. To inch our way forward. Inch by inch. In these metric times, though time itself is not yet that, perhaps these Imperial nouns and verbs should give way to their modern, metric descendants.

Lockhart must thrash the man to within a centimetre of his life, never giving a centimetre. A centimetre is shorter than an inch, we have short-changed our language, diminished the story, perhaps we should have used an exact conversion. We 2.54-centimetre our way forward to a solution, 2.54-centimetres by 2.54-centimetres. Taking the definition of a metre from the 17th General Conference on Weights and Measures, we can even say that Lockhart must flog his father to within 0.0254 of the distance travelled by light in a vacuum during the time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Completely modern and scientific language. Progress. On second thoughts, maybe not.

Mr & Mrs Smmc

Nowadays, particularly living in a large city, it’s hard to imagine a time when one’s profession was a unique enough identifier to be the source of a surname. Cooper – your maker of barrels and other wooden vessels, not to mention his assistant Hooper. Fletcher – arrow-maker and medieval arms dealer. Butcher – your go-to guy for the slicing and dicing of tasty, dead animals. Smith – the basher and shaper of heated metal. All reasonable and logical enough, though I think the Kings were probably getting a bit ahead of themselves.

Even though the English language as a whole is ever-changing – new words and grammar brought in and others dispensed with by the language’s capricious users – surnames are staunch hold-outs from the past. Perhaps that’s a reason to treasure them, they provide a link to our history, which the popularity of genealogy-as-hobby surely shows is something we value. However, let’s suppose we wanted to refresh this aspect of the language too and bring it into line with modern circumstances.

One option is to do as they did before and base them on current job areas. Consultant. Actuary. Programmer. The problem is that maybe there are now too few job areas to usefully name everyone. So, we could be more specific, for example, social media marketing consultant or the infamous and barely-fictional self-facilitating media node. For those reluctant to completely rid ourselves of the historical connection, as a compromise position we could artificially age these words with some retro spelling: actuary, now actuaerie.

This process of going from an occupation to a personal identifier is one of the principal functions of language – the naming of things. Perhaps now is the time for names, or our naming of things, to give something back to language? Some of these names, in their multi-word form could get long-winded and tedious, so let’s abbreviate. Social Media Marketing Consultant: SMMC. Primary school teacher: PST. Self-facilitating media node: SFMN. Ignoring capitalisation convention in the name of innovation we arrive at Mr Smmc, Miss Pst, and Mrs Sfmn. Hard to pronounce, agreed, but they’re new words, a contribution to the language and as Wittgenstein said:

A new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion.

They might look like nothing now, but from them could sprout fresh, new argument.