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A Linguist Writes #186

As a linguist, I am often asked, what exactly do words mean and should I try to impress my friends by using three words when I generally use two [eg "F**k-off you!" rather than just "F**k-off"]?

Such questions are often easier to ask than to answer though less so in cases such as that above where, both phrases being both slang and obscene, nobody gives a fuck. [For the record, "you" in the first iteration is implied and thus redundant, serving little or no purpose other than to extend the length of the already clear invitation simply to "fuck-off".

Because such matters can be complex - especially for the linguistic novice - I often find that a concrete illustration is the best way of getting to the heart of the matter, so perhaps a specific example might help in this case.

Last February's opportunistic supermarket protest combined an anti-CONTRIK-69 PPE rally with a "we want free trolleys" campaign in what critics [the RDC] described as an irresponsible, bio-hazardous toxic cocktail.

I believe it was the show-stopping one-legged South African ballet dancer Des "Hopalong" Tutu who once famously declared "We want to be free"*. As a rallying call, it had all of the hallmarks of a great slogan - simplicity, memorability and applicability in a wide variety of circumstances and situations. Adapted by the addition of only one pronoun, it was repopularised by hordes of demonstrators outside Waitaminutes' Bradpole superstore last February, after the retail giant announced it was to impose a 5p charge on the use of instore shopping trolleys to cover the costs of anti-CONTRIK-69 sanitising measures. "We want them to be free", went viral and became a rallying cry for all of those suffering oppression at the hands of the authorities in general and Sir Rising Crimewave's stormtroopers in particular. [Note, however, how the addition of the word "them" also particularises the import of the phrase, changing it from a universal, perhaps primeval aspiration to a specific and rather grubby self-interested demand.]

* Not to be confused with the Ziggy and the Boner's hit "We want to break free" which is equally well-known and possibly a tad catchier. Originally titled "We want to break wind", the last-minute change - suggested by legendary producer George Martini - was instrumental [no pun intended] in transforming a dud into a Edna-Award Winning platinum disc - perhaps an even more potent example of the power of the seminal and possibly protean word "free".

Most of the tabloids lead on the strange sighting of a "man-like" creature on the streets of Fishpond Bottom yestrday.

So as we regain our "free-dom" as a result of yesterday's dramatic easing of lockdown measures and the seachange it has wrought in our hitherto "un-free" lives [see today's Sydling St Nicholas Sun for example - "Man spotted out on the streets: local children thought it was an alien"] just what does "free" mean? Is it an immutable linguistic constant, a time/temperature/pressure invariant like Threadbone Heavy Chemicals Non-organic garlic nan bread or, in other words, a "given"? or is it, like a Threadboneextra Friday Stay-at-home meal deal "as variable as f**k"? [See Dorset Which, August 2019: "Meal Deals Special: 1001 Kinds of Crap Compared"]. Moreover - and perhaps more pertinently in these days of privation and shortage [See Mappowder Mirror", 19 July 2021, "A Van, A Van, My Kingdom for a Van: Pingdemic decimates orinoco driver rosters as thousands decide to stay at home and enjoy the good weather" - when coupled with different nouns, does "free" still have the "freedom" to "break-free" from its "surely bonds" to become a "free agent" and thus "free" to follow its "free form"? Is, for example, the portent, implication or - more properly - signifying function of "free" in, say, "free-ride" or "free-loader" the same as that in "free-range" or "free-thinking"? And what of free-ride, free-fall, let alone the linguistically more complex "free jar of pickled onions with every Waitaminute Frozen Dinner-for-One". And, finally, what if we reverse the sequence: does "carefree" carry the same semantic implication, respect the same semantic parameters and observe the same rules as "free care"* - the one implying an absence of anxiety, the other an obligation to help others without a view to recompense?. I think not.

*only in Scotland [Ed]

In the end, these are perhaps matters best left to the expert linguist, semiologist, grammarian, syntactician and hospital porter. But, in conclusion, I would urge you to remember one thing above all others as far as the slippery word "free" is concerned: that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that this side of Paradise all we can hope for is an everyday value Threadboneextra Friday Stay-at-home meal deal - something which, as we have noted, comes with its own problems and - in the case of the pizza option, some very tricky corners.

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