‘Is that something to do with oratory?’ asked my husband, looking up from the Guardian, which he only reads to annoy me, though it doesn’t. He was talking about the word oracy, which featured in Sir Keir Starmer’s speech last week about ‘smashing the class ceiling’. I think that, like my husband, most people assume it is a word that has been around from time immemorial, though not often used. In fact it was invented in 1965 by Andrew Wilkinson in a book called Spoken English: ‘The term we suggest for general ability in the oral skills is oracy; one who has those skills is orate, one without them inorate.’ The analogy was with literacy. The author explained a couple of years later that the term included listening. ‘That the word has come into use so quickly,’ he wrote in 1968, ‘suggests that it is filling a genuine gap in our vocabulary.’
Perhaps so, though the statutory guidance on the study of English in the national curriculum doesn’t use it, even though it insists that ‘spoken language underpins the development of reading and writing’. The national curriculum, too, requires that primary-school children should be taught to listen. They should ‘speak audibly and fluently with an increasing command of Standard English’. So it is not true that schools are obliged to leave children in command only of their own dialects, no matter how unintelligible they are to others.
The need for the term oracy was partly generated by the negative connotations of existing terms for skill in speech, such as oratory or rhetoric. Today rhetoric is most often used of deceptive or meaningless political statements. Originally it was simply to do with speaking, from the Greek verb wereo.
Rhetoric was a respectable subject. Aristotle wrote a book on it; Cicero six books. In Jesuit schools, the forms, my husband reminds me, were named, in ascending order, Elements, Rudiments, Grammar, Syntax, Poetry and Rhetoric.