Listening to the BBC reporter James Lansdale interview David Cameron last week in his kitchen my ears pricked up, not because our dear leader had said anything of substance but rather because of the way he said it:
‘There definitely comes a time where a fresh pair of eyes and fresh leadership would be good, and the Conservative Party has got some great people coming up – the Theresa Mays, and the George Osbornes, and the Boris Johnsons. You know, there’s plenty of talent there. I’m surrounded by very good people.’
With his description of the prospective Conservative Party nominees as plural individuals, the Prime Minister managed to bring the worlds of football and politics crashing together in one large cliché. My suspicion is that this was unintentional and thus evidence of the pervasive influence of football chat on the English language. Cameron himself is no big football fan – his laissez-faire allegiances are could be aptly described as being with Aston Vanilla – and yet his usa of the plural individual closely apes its common usage in football to generalise about star players.
In a Daily Mail article assessing the prospects for England as they lined up against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup, the motivational message of Paul Scholes was summarised as: ‘You can keep your Ronaldos‘ – he preferred Andy Ritchie, apparently.
Indeed, references to the pluralised individual have only increased since then. It is used in football jargon to refer directly to a team’s star player and yet also enables a generalisation to be made about the type of footballer that he is.
So, in a comment under a Guardian article from 2007, a certain ‘speaktruth’ notes that everyone knows who the big players in the Premier League are: ‘Your Tevezes, your Ronaldos, your Gerrardos, your Cechs, your Terrys‘.
In the real world there is only one of each player to go around but their pluralisation serves as a shorthand for underlining their unique ability whilst at the same time indicating the inherent interchangeability and repetitiveness of the modern star footballer. You can’t have a good team, or at least you can’t have a recognised ‘big’ team in the modern game without a star in the roles of goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and attacker. They cannot all be John Terry, Steven Gerrard or Carlos Tevez, but you can feasibly have your Terrys, Gerrards and Tevezes displaying their wares at the top of the Premier League. Used in this way, pluralisation is simply a new way of referring to footballing archetypes by the first name that springs to mind, or even the pioneer of the type of player you wish to refer to – see the oft lamented need of Arsenal for another Vieira.
Beyond the archetype there is even more linguistic potential in this usage of the plural individual. It can be used as a way to compare different styles of player and even different qualities of player, although the quality of this use varies wildly:
Take for example a rather hollow use of the plural individual by everyone’s favourite confidence merchant Tim Sherwood:
‘And in the end your homegrown players will always be your best players. Look at the Gerrards, the Carraghers, the Nevilles and the like. Always the best players for their clubs. They’re not going to be your Ronaldos, flash-in-the-pan fantastic players who are going to leave after two or three years […]’
Here Sherwood used players as pluralised individuals to serve as synecdoches for both English and foreign footballing stars. In this context it is a neat way of skirting over uncomfortable context and detail that if pursued might completely undermine the argument. For example, there are no easy comparatives to Gerrard in the modern game and Ronaldo was at Manchester United for five seasons, twice the length of time implied. This kind of verbal fudging allows commentators to get away with absolute murder by seeming to provide useful examples and case studies when in reality they are offering up the kind of complete tosh that Jamie Redknapp would be proud of.
In a more constructive vein, Gary Neville, a pundit who is widely regarded as more of a talent than your Redknapps or Townsends, also enjoys an occasional pluralistic fancy:
‘Think about the type of full-back that we’re now producing, Ashley Cole, Kyle Walker, Ryan Bertrand and Luke Shaw. They’re not the full-back of 20 years ago, they’re different. The centre-forwards we’re producing are not your Alan Shearers, who was an excellent player, and Mark Hateley, they’re more Daniel Sturridge.’
Now, used in this way as part of a reasonably worked out argument drawing on a range of examples and using the pluralistic individual to complement and even summarise a point with a flourish, I can see the utility of this particular linguistic curiosity and wish it a long and happy future, which is more than I wish the Theresa Mays, the George Osbornes, and the Boris Johnsons of this world.
Writing this blog made me ponder if football was really the only context that I had heard this pluralisation being used and of course upon reflection it was not. ‘Your Russell Crowes’, ‘your Brad Pitts’, ‘your Paris Hiltons’ (to dip into the not too distant past) are common enough in media commentary on show business. This would suggest the mode of referring to individual stars as pluralistic symbols of wider archetypes has been common across the broad sphere of entertainment and sport for some time.
Indeed, upon reflection, although the language is new, the effect aimed at is as old as the hills. Charles Dickens was a master of using individual characters as synecdoches for wider social types: your Veneerings for the grasping aspirational middle class; your Fagins, your Artful Dodgers, your Bill Sikeses for the criminal underclass; or your Oliver Twists and David Copperfields for the innocent boy done good. The only difference being that the specific linguistic phenomenon of referring to them in this pluralistic way is new, springing from a modern world of celebrity and sports reporting and now, thanks to Cameron’s digression over a chopping board, it may be making a break for the serious sections of newspapers and from thence who knows.
Dr Wilfred Rhoden – better know as Jack – is currently teaching some history to a charming bunch of young minds over at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln. He lives in Sheffield where he enjoys the hills, beer and soft water. He is a Bolton Wanderers and San Francisco Giants fan. He doesn’t have much time for modern football.