The Winle time warp

By David Medcalf

Published 08/10/2016 | 00:00

Ireland's bestselling passenger car.

Sometimes I feel as though I am Rip van Winkle waking up after his 50-year sleep to find a world familiar yet altogether changed. Rubbing his eyes and blinking against the light, the sleeper rises to find that at least the hills on the horizon are as remembered. And the general shape of the landscape is correct, though too many of the ditches have been pulled out.

While a majority of the old buildings remain standing, it is notable that most have been fitted with strange windows. This alien glazing often appears more substantial than the dowdy walls in which it sits. The long standing houses have been joined by exotic new structures, wondrous in their variety, where families smaller than before enjoy the luxury of unimaginable space. These are palaces, not mere homes.

Most of the roads follow the same course as they ever did, with some spectacular alterations in the form of motorways or bypasses. The explosion of vehicles on all these thoroughfares is an eye-opener to anyone who grew up kicking ball on streets where cars were a rarity. Now even the sleepiest suburban cul-de-sac has traffic. Supposing that he is not knocked down on his first attempt to cross the road, good old Rip will surely not be long adjusting to his altered surroundings. It is easy enough to become accustomed to material advances. A one minute tutorial on the use of the microwave and he will be fine.

For a week or two he will be asking stupid questions like 'Whatever happened to the Irish Press?' or 'Is Gay Byrne really still alive?' or 'What is this thing called Lap Top?'. There may be a period of transition where he spends hours on end sitting in front of television with the zapper, exploring in bewilderment the expanded broadcasting universe in which a hundred channels vie for the attention of someone raised on a Telefís Eireann monopoly seen through a blizzard of interference.

But please bear in mind that many people who grew up with zappers in their hands also spend hours in front of the television restlessly hopping between stations. The man emerging from his coma would not be all that peculiar if he behaves in this way.

While he might adapt to the physical surroundings no problem, the stream of language assaulting the van Winkle ears would likely present many more challenging difficulties.

The other day, daughter Persephone emitted a snort of derision most unbecoming in a young lady. The snort was followed by a hoot of the contempt with which teenagers view oldsters who are attempting to be 'hip' or 'cool' - two adjectives the resurrected Rip might struggle to deal with. Persephone's disdain was prompted by an acquaintance of middle-age who had uttered the word 'lol'. Her father can never remember whether lol stands for 'laugh out loud' or 'lots of love'. Well, apparently, I need not bother to learn which is correct as lol has been already jettisoned from cool conversation to be replaced by some other freshly minted piece of gobbledegook.

Spoken English is changing so fast that there is no way that the stuck-in-the-mud generation can hope to keep up to speed. Rip van Winkle would not stand a chance. His only potential employment would be as a care assistant in a nursing home, talking old-fashioned sense and rose-tinted reminiscence to the residents. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary expect to add at least 1,000 new entries each year to their store of words. The latest batch included the likes of splendiferous and cheerer-upper. Such etymological hyperactivity is a symptom of a language entering the realms of chaos.

Even phrases that appear to be composed of familiar components may not be relied upon to convey clear meaning. I believe it was Hyundai I noted advertising 'Ireland's bestselling passenger car'. Perhaps something was lost in translation from the Korean which might have explained the implication that a mere 'car' is not the same thing as a 'passenger car'. Those of van Winkle vintage recall a time when a majority of motorist drove either Mini Minors, Morris Minors or Volkswagen Beetles. They all had the capacity to carry passengers. Has something changed since?

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