I’ve written before about those hideous, collective earworms – the nonce-phrases that clutter up our mouths then fall unbidden from our lips – and I make no apology for writing about them again; if you like – and if it makes it any more tolerable – think of this as a sort of nonce column, quite inadvertently repeated, with no more awareness being exhibited on my part as I type, than you have when you utter the words “to be honest”.
Yes, “to be honest”, it is without doubt the meme de nos jours – and as such, must represent a cul-de-sac in cultural evolution on a par with loon trousers or fondue parties. And everyone is saying it – oh, yes they are; you cannot turn on a radio or a television, get on a bus or a train, roll over into the sweet morning afflatus of your beloved, or walk your dog in the local park without hearing it. “To be honest” squawks forth from politicians and broadcasters, mutters sullenly from the woman and the man in the street, murmurs enticingly in your frowsty ear, calls to you across the muddy pockmarks and smudged white lines of the football pitch: to be honest, to be honest, to be honest, to be honest!
And what does it mean? Clearly, it has nothing to do with the truth; indeed, it is almost always appended to statements of either incontrovertible fact, or opinions of such an anodyne form that only Descartes’ malicious demon would dream of fabricating them. In our fair land, on any given day, you can hear your fellow citizens say things of the form: “To be honest, I had a pork pie for lunch,” or, “To be honest, I think Michael Heseltine’s a little pompous,” or, “To be honest, I never really liked Take That’s music.” (I introduced these statements as hypotheticals, but, to be honest, they’re all ones I’ve heard in the past 24 hours.)
Back in the days when the prime minister wore loons and his chin was permanently glazed with melted emmental, the reflex of fidelity was far simpler. “I think Ted Heath’s dishy,” people would say, and then after a suitable pause, “honest”. Or, to ring the changes on this, they might prefix their remark with the adverbial form: “Honestly, I don’t know what he’s doing sailing his yacht while the country’s going to the dogs.” The single word forms were both less jarring – and the opinions they bracketed were often a little more contentious. But nowadays, there seems to be nothing at all that cannot be dulled down by the addition of the hateful tic.
In the past I’ve advanced the view that these banalerisms seep up from the water table of the collective unconscious as telling evidence of the true state of things – in this respect they are, formally at least, entirely honest. In a society riven by bad faith – corrupt politicians, bent coppers, finagling hacks, kiddie-fiddling philanthropists, peccancy, in short, of every conceivable form – the quite blameless ordinary citizen nonetheless feels an inner compulsion continuously to profess her super-glued adhesion to the truth. But if things go on in this way I predict that you’ll find yourself in automated checkout queues grown exponentially longer due to the swearing-in ceremonies shoppers feel they must undergo; Bible raised in one hand they will intone, “I swear by Almighty God to remove all unexpected items from the bagging area.”
We erroneously believe we can save ourselves from being crushed by our own lack of faith in the most ordinary speech acts, and that there’s a personal nonce-phrase saviour – I refer, of course, to “I’m good”. In the past when you asked people how they were they might reply, “I’m quite well, thank you,” or even give you a thumbnail sketch of their health. But now there’s only the wet-blanket coverall: “I’m good.” Why does everyone say they’re “good”? It is because really we feel ourselves to be bad; bad because we lie about our pork-pie consumption and Michael Heseltine’s character; bad because we secretly sleep with a Gary Barlow blow-up doll; bad because we can no longer trust the evidence of our senses.
“I’m good” is a useless prophylactic, yet we must not flag – we must fight the “to be honests” on the beaches and in the bar rooms, in the classrooms and on the shop floor. I call upon you all to resist “to be honest” with all your might and main. How? It’s simple really: every time I hear someone say “To be honest, it’s been a rainy day,” I snap back: “No! Don’t be honest, lie about it – say it’s been a sunny day, spice things up a little!” To begin with they look at me suspiciously, but then a comprehension dawns on them and, to be honest, it’s a lovely sight.