The Age of the Adjective

Our old English master at school once asked the class what we thought of the adjectives in Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Words like weary, glimmering, solemn, droning, drowsy… By this time the back two rows of 4A were asleep. I got a pat on the head for saying that in stanza 15 they were pretty important, ‘Some mute inglorious Milton… Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood…’ You may remember, or not. But O adjectives, where are you now? Take a handful.

‘Major’; who was it who enquired when there was going to be a minor new television series? For one Scottish rugby commentator, every try was ‘magnificent’. And those ‘luxury’ flats? An adjectival noun; but where are some mediocre penthouse apartments, with a moderate view of half the lake?

Your local paper (even the national ones) have much to answer for. We gathered, on a journalism course, that deceased Methodists were staunch, departed Roman Catholics were devout; Anglicans were then left with ‘lifelong’. Unlike footballers confronted with a microphone and camera when they have hardly left the pitch, reporters have time to think.

Does every newsworthy quote from a vicar have to be part of an ‘unholy row’? Neighbours are allegedly staggered, terrified, furious. Pensioners are frail; cancer sufferers brave, celebrities famous, especially if we have never heard of them. If they really were, we would not need to be told. The famous Winston Churchill? If they are not, do not say they are. It is rather like ‘The Lord is here’, but I digress.

Any law your paper does not like is ‘controversial’ and ‘unpopular’, like speed limits and ‘no smoking’ signs.

But if many of us live in glass houses, pent or otherwise, who are we to cast the first stone? Must grace always be amazing? John Newton did not invent it: the phrase was borrowed from others and posthumously marketed by those Americans, to someone else’s melody.

Is it time we revisited ‘Heavenly Father’ or ‘Almighty God’? If those words have lost their meaning, yes. Other options, however, are not too clever. To be confronted with brash new adjectives every Sunday is hard on sensitive nerves. But cliché-land is no place for Christians.


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