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Mind your language

Mind Your Language

Dot Wordsworth tells us to beware

29 April 2009

12:00 AM

29 April 2009

12:00 AM

My husband tapped the notice on the wall of the train noisily with his stick. Such behaviour would be embarrassing, if I let it. ‘Ramping!’ he said. ‘Pure ramping.’

Ramping in my husband’s private language means ratcheting things up, usually in an assertive and hostile way to cow the opposition. As usual, we were the opposition, in this case of those who had put up the notice in the train. ‘Be aware,’ it said, ‘that you may be prosecuted if you are not in possession of a valid ticket.’

The ramping in this example was the use of the words be aware as if they meant ‘beware’. Perhaps some people think they do. They seem to figure increasingly in public notices of a minatory nature.

Charles Moore will be able to tell us whether in the hunting field people still shout ‘Ware wheat!’ or ‘Ware wire!’ No doubt some reader on the Trent will know if any aged boatman may be heard to cry ‘Ware ager!’ to warn of a tidal wave, as the OED supposes he may. These are all examples of the good old English verb ware, meaning ‘take care’. There was also a related adjective, ware, ‘cautious, on one’s guard’, and the exclamation be ware came to be taken as a single verb, so much so that after about 1600 people came to think of ware as an abbreviation of beware.

Since the Renaissance, by contrast, the word aware has had the meanings ‘informed, cognisant, conscious’. Any connotation of ‘being on one’s guard’ had become obsolete by the end of the 16th century. It just about creeps into Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. ‘Well there’s the second time. Aware the third,’ says the anti-hero transported by Mephistopheles, as the Pope crosses himself. When the poor prelate makes it a third time, Faustus boxes him on the ear. It is this kind of warning that the railway notice hoped to imply by resurrecting a usage obsolete for 400 years.

You’ll find be aware of all over the place now. It is the same sort of ramping that goes with officialese telling us that we have been advised of some disobliging fact, as if that made the act more potent. Another example is receiving an email claiming that it embodies some matter as discussed (when at best the subject had been hinted at on the telephone). Discuss comes from a Latin word meaning ‘shake to pieces’, which is what my husband would like to do perpetrators of ramping.

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