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An English lesson: Are these the four most overused words in the English language?

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With a clear disregard for the bashing he’s about to get in the plaza, resident Australian columnist Peter Sherwood points out just how badly the Brits abuse their native tongue.

Those of the British persuasion might reasonably demand that an Australian (me) who’s defending the English language from gross and tedious abuse by Brits, should be set upon by a parliament of rabid owls. But I will press on. It is important that I express the brain-busting irritation that possesses me whenever a certain four words are spoken in every second sentence in every British TV interview. If it didn’t drive me crazy I wouldn’t mention it, but I have cringed and squirmed long enough.

My vain hope is that by giving frustration a vivid airing, relief will be mine, along with a modicum of weirdly imagined vengeance against all those who make me want to set fire to their tongues.

I have no idea why my dropping out of school wasn’t instantly rewarded with a PhD in linguistics and a Pulitzer Prize, but I do have an uncanny ear for the absurd – both a burden and a gift that has paid some bills these past decades. Often, I’ve wished that this talent of mine would be magically returned from whence it came and be replaced with a sixth sense for the stock market. But we play the hand we’re dealt, even when all the cards are jokers.

It’s like a no-brainer, actually

Rather than droning on without ever getting to the point (another of my pet hates), I should get to the point. But before I do, let me say that there are Americanisms blitzing the English language that are equally asinine. One in particular makes me wince – the gratuitously annoying insertion of ‘like’ after every few words, so much so that compulsive ‘likers’ often end up with half a dozen of the damn things in a single vacuous sentence.

Those who say ‘like’ relentlessly should be clamped in cast iron Ugg boots and dropped into the sewer. Their contribution to communication and a more coherent society is up there with the mixed metaphorical mishmash and bird-brained paroxysms of geopolitical lunacy espoused by Alaska’s gift to the Democratic Party, Sarah Palin. Deaf to their own dreary tones, ‘like’ is clearly conversationally contagious, as I’ve never heard only one participant use it. Like.

Finally, to those four repetitively offensive words that have taken possession of the British vernacular – ‘you know,’ ‘actually’ and ‘obviously.’ Linguistically unnecessary, together they combine to make each other redundant. With more than one million words in the English language to choose from, their constant use takes the art of superfluous semantics to a cosmically ratbag level.

Take a typical football manager interview: Twelve nil is quite a thrashing. What happened? “Well obviously it’s, you know, a bit embarrassing. We actually had chances but obviously we didn’t take them. A few decisions went against us and, you know, we should have actually been given a few penalties.

Obviously, the score doesn’t actually reflect the entire game but, you know, obviously our fans won’t be happy.” Obviously. British tennis star Andy Murray begins every sentence with ‘obviously.’ Andy, stop it.

Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 19 years. The former head of an international public relations firm, Peter is the author of 15 books and has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post.

Illustration by Andrew Spires

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