Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Leader of the House of Commons in England, has lately been the subject of remark for his questionable sense of style. And I don’t mean his unfortunate sartorial choices. I mean his directives on English usage. He has, we learn, given his staff a style guide that is just not what a style guide should be.
Many people chalk up his preferences to traditionalism and preferring the old ways. But Rees-Mogg, often called “the Honourable Member for the 18th Century,” is not actually expressing preferences supported by tradition. Like most modern grammar numpties, he’s fancying himself more traditional than tradition. The point is not to hold back the march to modernity; it is to enforce an entirely recent invention of the past for the sake of maintaining a certain sense of superiority. A sort of Disneyification, if Disney were run by ghastly snobby boys.
Consider his list of lexical anathemas (which I reproduce here exactly):
- Due to
- Too many ‘I’s
- ‘invest’ (in schools etc)
- No longer fit for purpose
- I am pleased to learn
- Meet with
- I note/ understand your concerns
I feel quite sure that several of these bans came from annoyance at overuse by some of his staff members – how else would “I am pleased to learn,” “I note/ understand your concerns,” and “No longer fit for purpose” make it on the list? But one could not get through 18th-century masterworks of English literature (Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Alexander Pope, and many others of note) without the words got, lot, very, disappointment, equal, or ascertain. (I just did a corpus search on works of literature from 1710 to 1780, and I could fill pages and pages with examples of each.) Speculate was used by Edward Gibbon in 1776; meet with has been in use since before Chaucer’s time. It is true that invest in meaning ‘put money into a thing or project with the expectation of return’ was first used in the early 19th century, but come on. And hopefully? A word that has been in use since the 1600s, and has only been the target of misplaced crankery (and only in its role as a sentence adverb, a role almost never objected to when filled with any other word) since the 1960s?
It is not truly respect for tradition that is at work here. It is disrespect for a certain set of people. His distaste for things that smack of the lower (or, really, non-upper) classes shows through. He is, for example, not the only person to think got is poor English. This is undoubtedly because in our times, got is often used as a casual replacement for have, and so it may get an air of the… hmm, well, “not our sort.” (And you lot ought to know about lot too.) But he might pause from forging his lightning-bolts and consider Edmund Burke’s words from 1775: “In this situation, let us seriously and coolly ponder. What is it we have got by all our menaces, which have been many and ferocious?”
Mr. Rees-Mogg clearly opposes a certain vision of modernity – one that pre-dates (or perhaps predates) proportional type, for one thing, but, oddly, not one that pre-dates the typewriter. The grand old way of writing by hand did not use “double space after fullstops”; doing so is a mark of a typist.
But perhaps this is a key (sorry): these are directives from Rees-Mogg to his staff, his underlings, not necessarily models for himself or others of his station. This may help explain why he seems to want to have his cake (or Eton mess) and eat it too (at least he doesn’t want to leave anything half-Eton) – it has been noted that he has ignored his own rules many times.
It is also surely one reason he has thrown in arbitrary prohibitions (I can neither ascertain nor otherwise speculate as to the origins of some of them): for the sake of dominance. And perhaps to get his own back after having had to do all sorts of arbitrary things for upperclassmen in his fresher days at Eton and Oxford.