Alexander McCall Smith: An awfy fantoosh story about pilots, wings of steel and an eloping Pope

Why do pilots talk about ‘commencing a descent’ rather than ‘starting to go down’, wonders Alexander McCall Smith.

Nothing wrong with an even more fantoosh way of saying 'we're almost there' (Picture: STF/AFP/Getty Images)

Every year the energetic lexicographers who edit the Oxford English Dictionary bring out a list of new words that they have officially admitted to the OED’s august columns. Admission to this list is not given to any passing neologism: inclusion amounts to something of an imprimatur – this is now a real word as opposed to one of those terms that may enjoy brief currency before fading into desuetude.

This year’s list brought the usual crop of inventive plays on existing words. The verb to awfulize is now recognised – this being that act of interpreting situations as having the worst possible outcome. Jeremiahs awfulize, for example, and so does the sensationalist end of the press. Awfulization sells newspapers: there is nothing to draw people to take a closer look at a newspaper than to see some dire prediction paraded in large type. Which might remind us of Dorothy Parker’s suggestion that the most sensational headline imaginable might also be one of the most laconic: Pope Elopes.

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Alexander McCall Smith: This column is private and not to be read

Also appearing in the OED this year as a newly recognised word is awfy, a word that in Scotland we would hardly describe as new. Nor does the OED, as it happens, which cites its usage in 1724. Awfy, though, appears only to have reached Oxford now, which is awfy late. Further down this year’s list one comes across eyelessness, which was completely new to me. This, apparently, is the state of showing a lack of respect for authority – for which, I suspect, we already have quite a few terms. Uppity might serve, I would have thought, or sarky, or even lippy. Lippy, of course, is different from chippy, although one who is lippy is often like that because he or she is also chippy. Also appearing for the first time is onboarding, which is the process of integrating a new employee or member of an organization. Onboarding is one of those words that one can understand even if it has never been precisely defined. Aviation-speak has yet to claim it, being satisfied thus far with the simpler boarding. The language of aviation has a lot to answer for, though. In particular, since when did one land into a city, as plane announcements would now have it? And what happened to the simple and rather useful word now? That is never heard on plane announcements, which love the circumlocution “at this time”, as in “At this time we are commencing our descent”. Who commences anything? What ordinary people say is beginning or starting. That announcement should really be, “We are now starting to go down...” Or perhaps not, but certainly anything would be better than commencing a descent.

Last year’s list of new words included at long last one of my favourites, the word fantoosh. This is a Scots word and once again it has taken rather a long time for it to reach Oxford, but at least it is now in the OED and might get the wider recognition that it clearly deserves. Fantoosh means flashy, over-ornamental, and perhaps a bit over-dressed. All of those synonyms, though, are slightly pejorative, and may obscure the fact that one might describe something as fantoosh in a complimentary, even a proud way. “Do you like my fantoosh new jacket?” is a remark that might be made by one who is actually rather pleased with the garment. Or, “I bought myself a really fantoosh new car” does not suggest any buyer’s remorse or embarrassment, but on the contrary, pride in the purchase. If something is fantoosh, it does not mean that it is in questionable taste; it means that it’s really nice, even if a bit over-glitzy. But then glitz is definitely in bad taste, provided, of course, that one has not given in completely to relativism in these matters and is therefore unable to make any aesthetic judgement. If one has ceded all aesthetic ground to relativism, then glitz is merely descriptive, rather than evaluative.

To return to the language of aviation. A few years ago, in desperation over the language coming through a plane’s public address system, I found myself wondering how different it might be if the pilot were a poet, and spoke poetically. I wrote down what might be the words of such a pilot, in a short poem, as we made (commenced) our descent. The final lines were:

Look from your windows

To the starboard side

Of this metal tube

We call an aircraft;

Look out there, and see

The rain, the grey-white

Shafts of rain; do you know

That those wisps of cloud

You see up above

Are crystals of ice, falling

Like gossamer? Did you

Know that? Now please

About your waists

Affix the belts; you must,

As slowly towards the earth we drop,

To land’s embrace,

(Your belts adjust);

We are a little late, but what

Are a few minutes, nothing more,

Here and there? Not much, I think.

Goodbye, and take with you

The things you brought,

Your few possessions. Goodbye

Until we meet again,

And once more we carry you,

On wings of steel, on wings of steel,

To places you would wish to go;

Goodbye, dear friends, it matters not

Whether you’re a member of

The loyalty scheme we’ve got;

We love you all, as parents

Love their children equally,

Remember that, and please come back.