BBC Subcommittee on Words goes rogue and has to be shut down

BBC debate between Iorwerth Thomas and Gwynfor EvansAt the birth of British broadcasting, in the 1920s, radio presenters spoke with a range of accents and dialects, representing the considerable diversity of the British Isles.

The BBC’s first managing director wanted to standardise usage and pronunciation, and set up the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English, chaired by playwright George Bernard Shaw. The committee was made of linguists and literati, ranging from art historian Kenneth Clarke to ghost story writer Lady Cynthia Asquith.

They were tasked with creating a sort of ‘verbal style guide’ – setting the standard pronunciation for words like margarine (‘g’ to be pronounced like in ‘George’, not ‘guest’) and ‘garage’ (to rhyme with ‘carriage’, not ‘barrage’), and a Sub-Committee for the Invention of New Words was formed to devise words relevant to the emerging technology.

For example, what should someone who watches television be called? The Sub-Committee’s shortlist included auralooker, glancer, looker-in, optavuist, optovisor, seer, sighter, teleseer, televist and visionnaire, but they eventually settled on ‘televiewer’, which was later shortened to just ‘viewer’.

Historian Nick Kapur reports that, emboldened by this early ‘success’, the Sub-Committee began to run amuck, inventing new words willy-nilly out of whole cloth.

‘Some of the new coinages were reasonable and have survived. For example … “roundabout” was invented to replace the then-common “gyratory circus” and the word “servicemen” was invented to describe members of the armed forces.

‘Other ideas were… less successful. American essayist Logan Pearsall Smith proposed the BBC call televisions “view-boxes” and traffic lights “stop-and-goes”. Edward Marsh devised “inflex” to replace “inferiority complex” and novelist Rose Macaulay wanted “yulery” to replace “Christmas festivities”.’

At this point, BBC management stepped in.

‘Some sort of restraint should be put on this Sub-Committee. Some of the suggestions … were so ludicrous that irreparable harm to the main Committee’s prestige might be done should any of these suggestions be broadcast.’

Finally, in 1937, the rogue Sub-Committee was shut down for good. The Chairman of the Governers re-iterated that they were only supposed to be inventing words on an as-needed basis to cover the new technology, but that the Sub-Committee had, instead, ‘recommended the introduction to the public of new words for general usage. This responsibility for modifying the English vocabulary is one which the [BBC] feels it cannot accept.’

‘BBC English’ might now seem deeply conservative, but it was once the site of fierce and excitable debate among a literary set who, if not actually drunk, were certainly drunk with power.

For more, see: Dictating to the Mob: The History of the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English by Jürg R. Schwyter, Oxford University Press, 2016.

Photo: Public domain

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