The Old Grumpies: We’re lost for (the right) words

Shakespeare's words - follow his example
Shakespeare's words - follow his example

At our recent meeting we discussed the underwhelming response we had to our last article on politics and came to the conclusion that the English language has a lot to answer for because using certain words and phrases can lead to ambiguity and often give the wrong impression.

For instance, John Prescott, who has just been brought back for the Labour election campaign, presumably to give it more punch and connect with the public, once said “The Labour Government is proud of its achievement in establishing the Green Belt, and we intend to build on it”. He also described some unfortunate incident as “The worst disaster since I was elected”.

What are we to make of the advertisements that claim “Nothing works better than Anadin” (so take nothing) or “Try our special buffet - you’ll never get better” (if you want to live don’t eat there)? Or a sign that says “Fine for parkin here”. Without preceding words such as “It is…” or “There will be a…” there are grounds for perhaps an expensive misunderstanding.

Our solicitor said he could spend many a happy £100 an hour, pointing out the ambiguity. When a shop claims “Our bikinis are really exciting - they are simply the tops”, some people might think they may get ripped off.

An advertisement that says “Ears pierced while you wait” makes you wonder what other option you have.

Our resident intellect then said that Shakespeare could express an emotion or an experience in a few simple words whereas certain kinds of wind-bags can take 20 minutes to tell you the time and say “It’s almost exactly two o’clock”.

He then added that “almost exactly” is an oxymoron, at which time a member who had just woken up thought we were talking about him.

Our thespian member then said that a director had once asked him to “act naturally” and that “when the vicar leaves the stage, you two will be on your own.”

Memories of school reports came flooding back as members recalled entries such as “Your son’s work this term has been effortless” or “He has certainly been trying this year”.

Despite our attempts to give them the better interpretations our parents knew exactly what the teacher meant.

Then there are the headlines in the papers such as “Prostitutes appeal to the Pope” or “Red tape holds up new bridge”, and the missing hyphen in “RSPCA help dog bite victim.”

Our doctor said that he once got a lady patient into trouble (with the Social Services) because he had given her some very strong tablets and said: “Take these tablets home but if there are any children in the house lock them in a cupboard”. We didn’t believe that one.

If someone says “My wife can’t bear children any more” you don’t know whether to say “sorry about that”, or “neither can I”. But there are instances when something can be said which is true but doesn’t quite tell the full story.

One of our members claimed that he once sang a duet with Pavarotti but didn’t add that he was thrown out of the theatre for doing so.

Another bragged that he once beat Jonah Barrington the World squash champion but didn’t say it was at Trivial Pursuits. It could be true that your Grandad once did 100 metres faster than Usain Bolt without adding that it was when he fell down a mineshaft.

The phone call home may say: “Sorry my love but I’m tied up at the office”. If they had just been watching Fifty Shades Of Grey it could be literally.

Ambiguous, misleading and economical with the truth, misunderstood and even deceptive are ways the English language can affect us in all our lives.

But you have to admire the son of the last man to be hanged in Britain, who when asked to fill in a form for an insurance policy, faced the question “How did your father die?”

He replied, truthfully, “that he was attending an official function when the platform gave way”.