Reports have emerged of a new threat to the world's oceans, a threat mainly attributable to the dive media. Worst-hit are popular areas such as the Red Sea, Gozo and to some extent British shores, but it is a scourge that is becoming increasingly prevalent in less-visited areas.
The problem is adjectives: great rafts of them float like scum over the diving mediascape, coagulating in editorial eddies, and clouding once crystal-clear reasoning. No longer can fish swim freely through our subaquatic water-columns. Their gills become swiftly choked with florid descriptions, eventually asphyxiating them. They float to the surface, where they slowly bloat under a relentless, cruel and also merciless sun.
I am as guilty of polluting our once-clear seas with bombastic drivel as anyone. Which is why I am spearheading a clean-up campaign: the Commission for the Retrospective Abolition of Purple Prose (CRAPP).
Only last week, a grey whale was washed up on the beaches of medialand. A post-mortem revealed a sizeable tangle of adjectives in its stomach. Unravelled, it was found to include at least 14 obscure colours of unknown origin, such as cobalt, turquoisine, azure, amber, and tawny. Further tests showed that the tawny had most likely originated from a species of shark, while cobalt, turquoisine and azure had probably come from the sea itself. Amber and nine other colours have yet to be traced to source.
Meanwhile, authorities have appealed to journalists to come forward if they have had reason to use the term "statuesque" in a marine context over the past few months. There is hope that this might provide a clue to the origin of a whole string of unwieldy prose that is littering the British high-tide mark. "Foliaceous", "festooning", "myriad" and "photogenic" are among the foulest examples.
"We have suspects," noted a detective heading the investigation, "but nobody has been entirely ruled out - not columnists, not feature writers, not even over-creative sub-editors. Even the readers themselves are not beyond suspicion, with their dangerously florid letters. I dread to think what damage can be done by a word like 'serrated' in untrained hands. Unwary marine mammals entering the article at a later date could become severely lacerated," he said, adding that he had been properly trained to use the word "severely" in a maritime application.
Scientists have also warned that the marine environment is a particularly risky place to use adjectives, as they can easily drift free in literary currents. If their use cannot be avoided, they warn, then they should at least be firmly secured to the noun they describe. Last October, the word "playful" broke loose from an article about seal pups, and eventually washed up in an adjacent piece about great whites in the Med. Readers have been urged to exercise caution, especially if reading in the bath.
Other species are struggling to survive in their natural habitats, having become infected by "parasitic adjectives", as they are becoming known. "Swollen" eels, "paranoid" anemones, "affectionate" sea-urchins and "claustrophobic" lobsters are all under threat. Divers themselves are becoming "graceful", "magnificent", "sophisticated" and a whole host of other things that they clearly are not.
Likewise adverbs. Environmentalists have been angered by the careless use of the words "repeated" and "frenzied" in an advert placed alongside an article on the mating habits of Bermudan turtles. "We've picked up over 240 of the poor things," said a local conservation volunteer. "They're quite simply shagged out."
Appeared in DIVER - July 1999