The English Pedant – Why meeting is a four-letter word

This is for all those who work in the kind of company that has meetings. If you don’t know why that word is in italics, consider yourself lucky. Meetings are usually designed to bring the firm together and get everybody focused and united in pursuit of a particular goal – i.e. making money or doing something that leads to making more money.


Because they will be talking about the business they’re in, which is probably something quite banal, and because the only action they get that satisfies their innate hunter-gatherer instinct is selling a lot of stuff at the expense of the competition and (whisper it) perhaps their own customers, the people who run meetings use terminology that makes it all sound more exciting than it actually is. For every genuinely happy businessman who really enjoys what he does (such as the ever-smiling, ever-thinking, ever-diversifying Richard Branson) there are a thousand who are plodding through their working life and desperately trying to get some satisfaction from it, like an alcoholic trying to get a buzz out of one small beer.

So the language of meetings is pockmarked by words and phrases like these:

Blue sky thinking . Meaning: the sky is blue, there are no clouds to spoil things and you’re a child again. The possibilities are limitless and if you just put your mind into search mode, a brilliant and original idea will appear, turning you into a hero.

Cocks on the block . Meaning: we’ve had the blue sky thinking bit – now let’s be realistic. Imagine a chopping board, a meat cleaver and your penis. If it all goes wrong, you end up minus your personal sausage. (This obviously doesn’t work in a feminine context, and there is no known female version).

On the same page. Meaning: we all need to be thinking about the same thing, applying ourselves to a common issue. Can also be expressed as singing from the same hymn sheet.

Issue. Meaning: problem. The word problem was outlawed in 1985 because it sounded negative. It was temporarily replaced by challenge, which sounds altogether more positive, but gradually downgraded to issue, which, like Switzerland, is neutral, although it doesn’t have a multi-purpose pen knife named after its army.

Innovative: Meaning: in business terms, this most overused of words is usually a downright lie. In reality, to innovate is to come up with something new. However, people have taken to claiming it fraudulently when what they really mean is they are doing something they haven’t done before. Can also be found on 95% of the world’s CVs and job applications

Oversight. Meaning: to have oversight of something or somebody is to be in charge of it or them in a supervisory capacity. Until the dawn of the 21st century, an oversight was something you failed to do or spot (Sorry about your car having no engine. No offence intended – just an oversight on the mechanics’ part.)

At this moment in time. Meaning: now. It’s pointless, a waste of words, and the hallmark of people with desperately low self-esteem, trying to win points by sounding intelligent.

Going forward. Meaning: in future. It’s pointless etc. (see above)

The downside. Meaning: the disadvantage or negative aspect of something. Doesn’t really make sense, because climbing a hill, ski slope etc. is the hard part and coming down is relatively effortless. But… somebody coined the expression and people liked it, so what can you do?



Things they will never tell you

Who are they? They are people who don’t have your best interests at heart. They are the bad people, the ones out to get you.

And these are things they will never tell you.

  1. It’s the chef’s night off. You’ve eaten there before and it was great. That’s because the chef is very good. However, he’s not here on this occasion. The food will be cooked by an ordinary mortal – perhaps the chef’s deputy, maybe the owner, could be the kitchen porter, or possibly a random moron. They’re going to do their best – but that could mean anything.
  2. Don’t have the steak – it’s garbage. They bought a load of it and it looks good but is like leather. But they would rather see if they can get away with it than waste all that money. So they have battered it with one of those medieval spiky hammers until it’s so thin you can read the wine list through it. And it’s still chewy.

  3. You’re going to be sacked. You know they don’t like you and things haven’t been going too well. But when they want to see you in their office, they don’t want you to be prepared, with a list of extenuating circumstances, a letter of warning from your lawyer and a baseball bat concealed about your person. They want to be in charge of the surprises department.
  4. You’re not going to get the job. You could do it standing on your head. You know that and they know that. You’re ideally qualified, the best applicant they could wish for. But there’s just one thing against you and it’s on their secret agenda. Maybe you’re the wrong sex – you’re male and they want to appoint a female brain surgeon, just for a change. You’re straight but they want a gay bus driver – because they want to be seen as open to diversity. You have a nice, plain English accent but they want a regional variation as the voice that answers their phone. You’re white but they want a black manager because they’ve never had one before.
  5. It’s going to rain. You’re about to part with an inflated sum of money to watch a cricket match in England, but the forecast says monsoon. What are they going to do? Come clean, turn everybody away and lose money? No. And the match is not going to be replayed, so you can’t get what Americans call a “rain check”. That’s all very well for a piffling little game of baseball, but this is serious international sport.
  6. The sausages fell on the ground while they were bringing them over from the barbecue. It’s a clean garden – they’re a hygienic family – and it rained yesterday so the ground is fine to eat – maybe even nutritious.
  7. They don’t know. They, in this case, are doctors. General practitioners in the UK spend on average 8-10 minutes on each appointment. Therefore they don’t want to hear your life story because they don’t have time. You need to be very specific, very relevant and very accurate. Because you want them to fix you and they want that too, so you both want them to come up with an answer and a treatment in a split second. Hence the tendency to hand out pills, which may or may not help but will at least make the patient feel something is being done. You don’t want them to say they don’t know. At worst you want them to refer you to a specialist – at no cost to yourself.
  8. They don’t know where that is. Taxi drivers. They will get on the squawk box to the office, they’ll ask their mates, they may even probe you gently for clues. “That’s opposite the bus station, isn’t it?” The correct, if unhelpful, response on your part, is “I don’t know. You’re the taxi driver.”
  9. They have had every STI known to man, but they’re all right now. Sexual partners. Even if they have a perfectly clean bill of health right now, they’re not going to spoil that beautiful moment by confessing to previously having been a walking petrie dish of embarrassing infections.
  10. They didn’t read your email. Well, they read the first point but you made the mistake of going on to other subjects which also need to be dealt with. So they ignored everything but the first and it’s your fault for complicating matters.

10 misconceptions about white people

We all hope and pray that one day there will be no racial tension in the world, but that seems a long way off, with recent events in the USA fanning the flames of unrest all over again.

While right-thinking people of every race and every shade of skin deplore the idea of anyone being mistreated because of their colour, there is a danger that white people, seen as the major offenders, are being stereotyped right back, which makes the victims as bad as the perpetrators.

On a recent trip to Guyana I was greeted, from a crowd of taxi drivers, with the words, “Hey, white man”, which made me feel not just conspicuous but nervous. If a white driver in the UK had shouted that at a black visitor, he’d have ended up in court.

Apologies to those of Indian, Chinese and Native American descent, but the main thrust of this particular racism argument is black vs. white, so that is what we’re looking at here. You may want to compile your own list.

So here are a few points I would like to make in my personal defence, based on what I see as misconceptions.

  1. We’re all bastards. That is not true either literally or metaphorically. I can categorically state that I have never enslaved anyone, African or otherwise, and nor did my father, grandfather or great grandfather.
  2. We’re all privileged. Okay, I’m a white man who was fortunate enough to have a good education, but that wasn’t because my family had any money. We didn’t. My ancestors on both sides were labourers in potato fields who left their native France after a bad harvest and made a new life for themselves in the Channel Islands. Both of my grandfathers worked in greenhouses, growing tomatoes. My father took a step up the ladder as an insurance salesman (glamorous, eh?), but with four children to clothe and feed, there was precious little in the way of luxuries in our house. The education was due to the availability of free scholarships to a good school for the top students in the 11-Plus exam.
  3. We’re all American. No. I know it seems like that sometimes, with the way Hollywood and US television and music dominate the entertainment culture of the world, but we are not all Yanks. Some of us have never even been there, although anyone can do an American accent and get away with it, because there are so many variations. Hence the very British Hugh Laurie doing an accent to play the role of House. And the central character in Homeland, the US series about an American soldier returning after being held prisoner in the Middle East was played by a Brit, Damien Lewis.
  4. The rest of us are all English. Nope. Not even the British. English means from England, whereas British includes Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and little specks in the sea such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. And apart from the white Brits, of course, there are all the European countries, and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Falklands…
  5. We can’t dance. Not true. Admittedly, some can’t dance, but have you ever seen Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Madonna, John Travolta and Mick Jagger?
  6. We don’t know anything about music. When I was doing my singer-guitarist thing once a week in a beach bar in the Turks & Caicos Islands (south of the Bahamas), my wife and I hosted the local hospital’s Christmas party – and some of the guys brought along a huge, battered, shuddering PA system, because obviously old whitey wouldn’t have anything decent on his iPod. Actually, guys, I have a lot of music, some of which you might even like.
  7. We can’t play basketball. Not quite true. It used to be a white man’s sport, but it seems the African physique is better for that kind of movement. On the other hand, how many of the world’s top swimmers are black? Is it something to do buoyancy, muscle-to-bone ratio, or is it a cultural thing? And is it important?
  8. White sex isn’t as good. Frankly, ladies, (and indeed gentlemen) you should give it a try before you make that sort of judgment. As if you can generalize about that sort of thing anyway.
  9. We’re just not cool. Err, Clint Eastwood, David Beckham, Abraham Lincoln, Sean Connery, Al Pacino, Angelina Jolie, Princess Diana, Keira Knightley?
  10. We don’t have ‘soul’. In a musical sense this is patently not true. In the broader sense it is complete nonsense. You can’t define ‘soul’ anyway. But if you’re looking for white ‘soul’ singers, allow me to recommend Ed Sheeran, Joe Cocker, Michael McDonald, Amy Winehouse, Maria Carey, Joss Stone, Steve Winwood, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart and Boz Scaggs. Anything there that you like? No? Then I’m sorry to say this, but you’re prejudiced.
    The author is a British writer from Guernsey, an island between England and France. He is married to a mixed-race Venezuelan woman and has lived in the Caribbean region since 2012.
    A version of this article first appeared in Newsday, national newspaper of Trinidad and Tobago