Thursday, May 23, 2024
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The purloining of the prom


ACCORDING to the jaunty email I’ve just received from Debenhams, it’s time I was getting ‘prepped for prom’. It warns me: ‘Prom season is approaching, so don’t leave it too late! Debenhams has everything you need to prepare for the occasion.’

It offers me a charming array of ‘occasionwear’, which I must admit is quite attractive. However, even in these gender-fluid times, I don’t think a ‘bow sculpting crepe fishtail dress’ or a ‘halter neck corsage satin gown’ is quite me.

Fashion considerations aside, what leaps out at me from the advert is the word ‘prom’ itself, which strikes a jarring note. To old codgers like me, a prom is something along which you stroll as the brass bands play tiddly-om-pom-pom – it’s short for a promenade, a pathway beside the seashore. Alternatively, it’s a promenade concert, as held at the Albert Hall, so-called because originally such events were staged in pleasure gardens where the audience could walk around while the orchestra played. ‘Promenade’ as a verb means to take a leisurely stroll.

However, prom is now being subsumed into the American usage employed by Debenhams, which describes a ‘promenade dance’ – usually an end-of-term party for teenage school pupils. It’s yet another ultra-commercialised import from the States that has become big business here, along with such tacky manifestations as Hallowe’en ‘trick or treat’ and ‘Black Friday’.

That said, I’ve no quarrel with youngsters dressing up and letting their hair down – I wish we’d had something like that during my schooldays in the Fifties and Sixties. But it somehow grates to see ‘prom’ in this context. To a linguistic curmudgeon like me, using these Americanisms is demeaning. After all, we invented English, they didn’t.

However, after a lifetime in newspaper journalism I know very well that language evolves and there’s no stopping it. ‘Gay’, of course, is the classic example. I can remember around 1967 seeing a fashion article headlined: ‘What every gay young man will be wearing this summer.’ No one batted an eyelid – even that late into the musical-cultural revolution of the Sixties, gay to most people still meant lighthearted and carefree. But not for much longer.

The metamorphosis of words is a continuous process. There are dozens whose meaning has changed over the years. For instance, flirt originally meant to give someone a sharp blow or sneer at them, while a bully was someone kind or friendly. ‘Nice’ once described a stupid, ignorant or foolish person, then someone finely dressed, or who was shy and reserved.

It also had another meaning – something slender or narrow. In 1815, the Duke of Wellington called his victory at the Battle of Waterloo ‘a damned nice thing.’ Of course, such a bloody encounter wasn’t very nice in the modern sense, but the Duke was saying the result had been close-run. 

Since the full-on dawn of the digital age, barely 30 years ago, the speed with which words have taken on different meanings has been remarkable. Just look at Amazon, Apple, cookie, cloud, click, Safari, spam, stream, surfing, snowflake, tablet, troll, tweet, twitter, web, windows, and hundreds more. Younger folk probably won’t know, or care, what the words originally meant – I’ll bet many of today’s internet shoppers have no idea that the Amazon is a river in South America.

But does all this varying of verbs, nuancing of nouns and adjusting of adjectives really matter? In the end, probably not. I think that as long as we have a capacity for producing plain English with words that can be understood, the language will remain as rich and rewarding as it ever has been. But seeing the morphing of so many familiar words is rather sad. It’s like saying goodbye to old friends.

However, I’m not going to waste time moping about it. The sun’s finally appeared, so I’m putting on my sensible shoes, flannel trousers, striped blazer, straw boater and twirling my walking cane. Yes, I’m following the advice of Debenhams – and getting prepped for prom. Not the one they mean, but the tiddly-om-pom-pom prom.

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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