An esteemed commentator on national and international affairs has drawn my attention to three examples of current usage which I believe he views with less than enthusiasm and which might merit a little investigation. They are head off to, kick-start and quote (as an alternative to quotation).
The only use of head off that the OED records is the sense of getting in front of someone or something so as to impede their or its progress. However, the British National Corpus contains 291 instances of it. Of the 50 which are available to non-subscribers, five are in the sense of ‘go away in a particular direction’. Of these five, one is from an academic publication, while the others are from more popular sources. The collocation of off with a verb expressing movement from a particular place is commonplace (go off, run off, drive off, be off) so to that extent at least head off is unexceptionable.
Kick-start comes to us from the way in which motor cycles were once started. In place of a starter motor, the foot was used to smartly strike a lever which got the pistons moving, the sparks sparking and the petrol flowing. It was a sudden and violent action, so it is no surprise to find that it came to be used figuratively, as in kick-start the economy.
Quote as a noun with the obsolete meaning ‘a marginal reference’ is first recorded, acording to the OED, in 1600. It is first recorded as meaning ‘a quoted passage or remark’ in 1885. In 1888 it occurs as describing a quotation mark and in the twentieth century it becomes an alternative to quotation to describe the price given for a stock, a commodity or a piece of work. Whether it is a shortened form of quotation, or whether it derives from the verb quote is of little consequence. Both are legitimate types of word formation, the first known as ‘clipping’, the second ‘conversion’.
So much for the facts. What should we make of these expressions as they are currently used? What all three have in common is that they are informal and colloquial. We can well imagine one of a group of friends saying ‘Well, OK, guys, we’re heading off to the pub now’. That is an entirely natural and appropriate use of language. In a heavyweight academic text, on the other hand, we might normally expect to find ‘As the Pilgrim Fathers set out for America, they can have had little idea of what awaited them.’ That, too, is an entirely natural and appropriate use of language in a way that ‘As the Pilgrim Fathers headed off to America . . .’ might not be. So, then, with kick-start. We can imagine Nick Robinson (the BBC’s political editor) saying ‘What the government has to do now is find a way to kick-start the recovery.’ What we can only with great difficulty imagine is a scientific paper starting with the words ‘We kick-started the experiment by collecting the samples to be studied.’ As for quote, a modest little blog of quotations I once compiled was called ‘Baz’s Quotes’, because I wanted to keep it short and friendly. ‘Barrie England’s Quotations’ would not have achieved that. There’s a BBC radio programme called ‘Quote . . .Unquote’. ‘Quotation . . . End of Quotation’ would hardly be an improvement. But I would expect to find in, let us say, in a list of ackowledgements in a book something like ‘Finally, I am indebted to the publishers for allowing me to include numerous quotations from her work.’ However, given the tendency to greater informality more generally, I think we can expect to find a greater incidence of quote, and of the other two expressions, in contexts where we would not have found them previously. Not only Tempora mutantur et nos in illis mutamur, but also Tempora mutantur et lingua in illis mutatur.
If we remove informal expressions from our discourse, far from improving the language, we impoverish it. We are entitled to have opinions about words and constructions and not to use them if we don’t like them. We all find certain expressions tiresome when they are used excessively, but that is not an argument against the expressions themselves. What we have no grounds for saying is that a common usage is not part of the language and that its continued use will result in the decline of English as we know it. People have been saying that for centuries and they have all been proved wrong.
None of this is to say that anything goes. The opposite is the case. We need to know what to use and when and where to use it, for language does far more than communicate. It both expresses and reflects the topic under discussion, the context in which it is found and the relationship between the interlocutors. Only when we take these aspects into account as well are we able to judge with any authority the effectiveness of any piece of speech or text.