Lost in Translation…

Cover of "Do I Look Fat in This"

Cover of Do I Look Fat in This

Many years ago, in one of my many professional incarnations, I taught English to foreign students.  Some found the English Language fairly easy to learn, others less so.  However one thing that always caused confusion was when I explained that often when an English speaker says something, they actually mean something totally different.  I don’t know how much this is an issue in other languages – my grasp of other languages is so embarrassingly bad that I can barely tussle with the literal meaning let along any subtext.

In English, as spoken by a Brit,  however, subtext and etiquette play a huge part in the language and failing to see the subtext is a minefield which many have accidentally wandered into.

Take the innocuous “You must come for dinner, let’s get a date in the diary” or “I’ll give you a call”.  Woe betide you should think that is what the person actually means.  Don’t make the mistake of fishing out your diary or worse still waiting by the phone for it to ring.  When we say these things what we actually mean is “my diary is full for the next six months” and “I have absolutely no intention of ringing you”. We’re not being rude, it’s just that it is much easier to be faux-polite and to exchange the required formalities than it is to say “Bye then, I’ll see you around” which is what we really mean.

The British are for ever saying “sorry” or “I’m sure it’s my fault”.  This is not because we think we are at fault; confusingly quite the opposite.  Saying “sorry” is an automatic response for us Brits.  “Sorry” in this context is not remotely intended as an apology but again is a form of politeness.  Probably the worst thing you could say in response would be “apology accepted” – be warned, there was no apology intended.  It’s just words.

This politeness is acutely apparent at the British dinner party.  When presented with flowers or a gift by a guest, the hostess will inevitably murmur “Oh you shouldn’t have…”.  This is another example of where what we say is actually the opposite of what we mean.  What your hostess actually means is “Yes you should have bought me something, I’ve been up since 6am cooking your bloody dinner and sweating blood, sweat and tears over Nigella and Jamie Oliver”.

A common mistake that non-British people make when meeting a Brit is in response to the oft-used question “How are you?” or “How are you doing?”.  This question is almost rhetorical in nature.  The person is not remotely interested in how you actually are, but courtesy and greeting formality demand the use of such a question.  The mistake commonly made is to reply with a lengthy account of your current medical status.  This is neither required or indeed desired.

Relationships are another linguistical minefield with some very clear rules.  If a woman asks “Do I look fat in this?” do not hesitate to consider your answer.  Any hesitation will be taken as doubt by the woman.  This question is a stock question which requires a stock answer for reassurance purposes only.  The woman is not actually interested in whether you actually think she does look fat in it, she just wants to hear you say “Of course not, darling”.  Whatever you do, do not try and give a fuller answer – for example, “not at all but I think the red dress looks better” – as this will only serve to antagonise the woman and result in the accusation being levelled at you, “You do think I’m fat, don’t you!”  Take the easy option, you are not required to answer with any more detail, in fact it is actively discouraged.

If you are out with a group of people and you hear someone describe another person as “having a heart of gold” or “such a lovely, kind person”, do not be fooled – this is subtext speak for that person being, how do I put it kindly, “no oil painting”.  In fact, we have a lot of expressions which thinly disguise the brutal truth – my personal favourite is “he/she is not the sharpest knife in the drawer” – sounds so much kinder than “thick as two short planks”.

There is one situation though where you can take what we say at face value.  If your girlfriend/partner/wife says to you, “I’m really sorry but I’ve got a headache” – she means it.  Yes, there is a subtext here, of course, and by all means offer her a paracetamol but don’t dispute it, otherwise the headache will inevitably get worse and recur more often.

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January Blues – not me!

January seems to be a universally hated month which has always seemed a bit unfair for those whose birthdays fall in this month.  Not only do they have to deal with the joint present for Christmas and Birthday thing but their birthday celebrations are always a bit of a damp squib since most people are neither drinking nor eating. Well, I wish to redress the balance – I like January – a bit left field I know but that’s me, glass half full.  So banish those January blues and here are ten good reasons to like January (as far as I am concerned).

1. The children are back at school – this is far and away the best thing about January for me.  Having suffered the school holidays in shocking weather where not even the most insane mother would force her children outside, I have to admit that, although I love my children dearly, I was literally counting the minutes until my children became someone else’s responsibility between 9am and 3.30pm.  Since their return to school a couple of days ago, I have finished every single cup of tea I have made for myself (first time since mid-December) and I have managed to speak on the phone without conducting a parallel conversation with one or other child.  These are good things.

2. Christmas is over for another year – I know this sounds a bit bah humbug but it’s true – Christmas is a right palava and yes, there are some wonderful bits especially with young children but there are also some really irritating bits…

3. …which brings me onto “tinsel” – regular readers will know that I am allergic to tinsel – I hate the way it looks, the way it feels, the way it is omnipresent in the festive season and I actually hate the sound of the word, it sounds, as it is, tacky.

4.You can take the jumper that Aunt Maud gave you back to the shops and buy twice as much thanks to the sales.  I love a bargain – I really love a bargain and nothing makes me happier than exchanging something I don’t like for twice as many things that I do like.

5. It is perfectly acceptable not to entertain, not to cook for anyone and if you are as bold/odd as to invite people round in January, it is perfectly acceptable to have a take-away (maybe not pizza, but the local Indian or Thai restaurant fits the bill). In January I no longer have to pretend to be the offspring of Delia Smith, Nigella, Herman Blumenthal or whoever the chef du jour is.

6. It’s nice to do nothing – since I don’t fall into the camp of people insane enough to invite others around in January, I get to spend my evenings in January either watching the boxsets I got for Christmas or watching strangely fascinating “real-life” TV programmes that I wouldn’t go near at any other time of year.

7.The supermarkets are empty – the Christmas “Preppers” have gone and it is actually possible to pop to the shops for a pint of milk without running headlong into the panic-buying marauding masses who make

1024x768 Tree  - January 2012

1024×768 Tree – January (Photo credit: iluvgadgets)

buying even the simplest thing a herculean effort.

8. My credit card bill for January is the lowest of the year. January is the month when my credit card cools down after an extended period of overheating and just at the moment when it is about to spontaneously combust, it is allowed its “day of rest” – January.  If there is such a thing, I can say that January’s credit card bill is my favourite bill of the year.

9. The days are getting longer.  Always one to look on the bright side, we are on the way to summer – a long way off admittedly, but we are now the right side of the end of the year.  The odd snowdrop lifts the spirits further still. Am I pushing the point a bit…?

10. Everyone else in on a diet or having a no drinking alcohol month except me. Ergo they are miserable and however miserable they are, I am less miserable by virtue of the fact that I am still eating and still drinking. Cheers!

So there you have it, ten reasons to be joyful in January.  Perhaps I’ve stretched the point a bit but it’s not all bad and it’s only 31 days (744 hours for those who are counting) and as of today we are a third of the way through. Happy New Year all.