Last week we invented the intransitive verb “to fatten” and its opposite “to fitten” for
use in discussions of life-style choices. The trouble with English, we said then, was
that it doesn’t have enough words. This week’s contribution to the TES campaign
tackles the opposite problem, where English has a word that we would all be much
better without: the adjective “natural”.
Suppose someone in a class discussion argues that controlling your food or your
exercise isn’t natural; how do you counter it? The trouble is you can’t, because words
like “natural” immediately rule out rational discussion. Natural things are obviously
good because they’re in harmony with nature, and none of us want anything to do
with the unnatural. If you want to sell something, you boast about how natural it is
and if it’s straight from a laboratory or factory, you don’t mention that this makes it
unnatural. Consequently, as soon as you label one thing “natural” and its opposite
“unnatural”, there’s no question about which is better.
The problem is that when you try to classify behaviour as natural or unnatural, either
you give up because you have no idea how to do it, or you decide that natural
behaviour isn’t that great after all. For example, putting your feet up in front of the
TV with a big bag of crisps: natural or unnatural? If natural = easy, then it’s natural –
but who says that TV and crisps are natural? Thinking in terms of nature in such an
“unnatural” culture just isn’t helpful.
The trouble is that you can use “natural” to argue either side of any argument.
Conserving energy is natural – just think of a cat lying in the sunshine. Running
around pointlessly is natural – just think of a cat chasing a leaf. Eating sweets is
natural – think of a dog with a lump of sugar. Eating only while you’re hungry is
natural – think of a dog leaving half his bowl of food uneaten. No doubt a biology
teacher could supply more examples.
Words like “natural” are a substitute for real thought. Since the 1930s they’ve been
called “purr words”, and their opposites “snarl words”. We like these terms, and think
they should appeal to KS3 pupils too, who would enjoy thinking of other examples.
Here are a few more to get them started:
freedom-fighter/terrorist; patriot/fascist; campaigner/extremist; left-
wing/right-wing (or right-wing/left-wing); fan/crony; team/mob; reveller/lout;
plan/plot; remind/nag; traditional/old-fashioned; slim/thin; well-built/fat
We leave it to your judgement to decide what to do about purr and snarl words, and
maybe this is something you could discuss with the whole class. They certainly need
to be used with care, but sometimes they’re ok. After all, they do express complex
emotions rather neatly, and emotions are natural.