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The English language in decline?

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Friday, 14 December 2012


'"We have to have her, at least for tonight, because I promised Sam Dolby that I'd look after her. To be honest, I didn't think she'd get in touch at all: I'm only pleased she feels she can trust me."

"It's ruined the evening."'

In this exchange, at page 174 of crime novel Oxford Menace, published in 2008 by Headline Publishing, London, author Veronica Stallwood employs an expression that is repeated throughout the book. Fewer than one hundred pages on (at page 233):

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'"Didn't he take a mobile phone?"

"He said he wanted to immerse himself in the local culture and not anchor himself to his old life. To be honest, I think he was afraid his family might be on at him every day unless he cut himself off."

"He's succeeded there …"'

These are not the only instances of the appearance of what is today's most used and abused expression in the English language – at least in the United Kingdom: 'To be honest …'

Every day on the streets, in the shops, in the media, at conferences, in presentations, in workshops and seminars, in lectures – 'To be honest …' is everywhere. Novelists employ it unremittingly. Professors in all disciplines do not abjure its use. Nor do non-fiction writers renounce it. Ever constant in its employment, 'To be honest …' appears as often as, in Australia, 'you know' finds its way into everyday language – too often, too readily, too much.

As with 'you know', 'to be honest' is cringe-worthy, irritating and wholly unnecessary. Yet for unfathomable reasons, it peppers conversation until surely listeners are bound to scream – except that they, too, when having their chance to speak are (sadly) so often at one with their companions. Every one – and everyone – is apparently afraid of being seen as liars-all unless adding those fatal words – 'to be honest'. Or do they simply not think about it, not realise the monotony with which they repeat the expression? Does the phrase slip off the tongue, a mindless engagement?

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Whatever the case, the 'to be honest' problem is not isolated to the Atlantic's European side. The New York Times 'number one best seller' (as the cover tells us), written by Daniel Silva and published in the United States in 2010 by GP Putnam's Sons, confirms the idiom's trans-Atlantic appeal – at least for novelists. Hence, The Rembrandt Affair, at page 161, does not disappoint:

'"And you, Herr Voss?" Gabriel asked after a long pause. "Did you ever look for the money?"

'"To be honest, I considered it …"'

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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