The English Pedant – The language of deception

One of the dangers of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is not having the time, not having the courage, or failing in some other way to correct a student’s enthusiastic misunderstanding of a potentially sensitive word.

I was recently challenged by a teenage girl on the meaning of the verb to  cheat. We were on the subject of school and she was telling me how a friend of hers had done much better than she had in a test because he had  smuggled a crib sheet in, placed it in his lap below the desk and was referring to it throughout.

“Cheating,” I said.

“No,” she responded with the smirking satisfaction of having outsmarted the teacher. “That means… you cheat on your boyfriend with another boy. Like you kiss somebody else or…”

She was right in that that word has come to mean what used to be called “being unfaithful”, a term too cumbersome and uncool for the TV  movie generation. It reached epidemic proportions in the US and then, like the grey squirrel, was introduced to other English-speaking areas including the UK and proceeded to take over, sweeping the local population aside.

My explanation that cheating meant generally taking an unfair advantage by devious means was received unwillingly; the student’s understanding of the word had been drummed into her through every dimwitted teenage vampire series and unhappy, unpleasant depiction of romantic liaisons that seeps like glucose into the systems of the young.

She couldn’t offer an alternative single word for the idea of cheating at cards or at school, because there isn’t one, but it was hard for her to accept that the term  could exist without sexual overtones.

If you examine it in that unfaithfulness context, it doesn’t really match the photofit, because the conventional idea of cheating is that the cheat is achieving success in an area where someone or several people are also trying to succeed.

But, like a lazy songwriter who rhymes happen with Clapham, common with forgotten and basement with engagement because they’re close enough if not exact (all these and more in Up The Junction by Squeeze), this one word has come to be accepted as describing the act of having sex with someone other than one’s partner.

Short, puny alcoholic

Coincidentally, other words concerning deception have crept into the language in recent years, by way of internet dating sites. Before the internet existed, dating or “matrimonial” agencies would describe clients in plain English, but since the advent of doing it ourselves, those who feel their physical attributes are not  what is required have become creative. Enter the word “curvaceous”, to describe a woman with an undulating landscape. In the real but unkind world, she is fat, but she’s not going to say that about herself, and there is no conventional adjective that sounds any less critical. Overweight? Negative. Obese? Do you want a slap?

So the choice is between calling your body shape “average” and watching the look on your date’s face when he sees the truth, or using the C word: curvaceous. That or the evocative but ridiculous “volumptious”, a hybrid of voluptuous and scrumptious.

The current favourite is the acronym BBW, which can mean big breasted woman, big beautiful woman or even big black woman. At least your date knows not to expect a stick insect. It’s just a shame that body weight should be an issue at all, but preferences are preferences.

Meanwhile, few men would ever describe themselves as short, so the world must be full of internet dating descriptions claiming “average height”.

And that, when you’re only a shade over 5ft. tall, is cheating. Actually, no – it’s an attempt at cheating through just plain lying.

The English Pedant – Mutants in our midst

It often happens that getting a phrase wrong comes about because people have half-thought  about something, but not pursued the issue to its real conclusion. Such an example is  the now-epidemic “off my own back”.

It means doing something yourself, using your initiative and not involving others. The fact that it used to be “off my own bat” is neither here nor there (almost). Back works just as well and in fact probably looks the more likely of two options which both seem rather odd.

One theory is that the phrase comes from cricket, a game in which a bat is used to strike the ball, although it is possible for runs (points) to be scored without the leather touching the willow. It’s an unsatisfactory explanation, largely because if it really originated there, it wouldn’t need the “own”. You can’t score runs off someone else’s bat. Even if you’ve borrowed one, it is essentially yours because it is the one you’re using.

On the other hand, “off your own back” implies the effort of carrying something, and “own” fits slightly better there, but again, it’s not a clear, unarguable solution.

It’s an expression that has established itself somehow and , even though no explanation is totally convincing, we know what it means, and only a pedant would take the time/waste the effort required to analyse it.

A much clearer case of incorrect use is “most amount”. John is in the lead because he has the most amount of points. No he doesn’t. He has the greatest amount of points, or perhaps  the largest amount. You can hear the cogs creaking in people’s brains as they scan the list of superlatives: largest, biggest, heaviest, blah blah blah, can’t decide. So the generic one, “most”, it is.

When you scrutinise it, though, if you’re going to use “most”, why use “amount” at all? John has the most points. Cricket has the most strange expressions of all sports (it has).

Curiously, this appears to be a modern mistake. It wasn’t common until quite recently, so why has it crept in? Could it be that modern scourge, the ease with which we can communicate publicly? The fact that someone only has to say it once on TV or online and it infects the entire English-speaking world? Incidentally, to describe this phenomenon we use the term “going viral” with no regard for the fact that viruses are overwhelmingly considered to be bad. Nobody celebrates catching a virus, so why should videos, jokes, verbal expressions etc. be said to go viral in a good way?

Now that the English football season is underway (after the briefest of intervals), there is an amusing mistake to be enjoyed occasionally when someone describes a player with a particularly skillful way of kicking the ball. A commentator who knew what he was doing once referred to a player’s “cultured left foot”, and people wishing to repeat it, but who had forgotten the exact word, fished around in the area of their vocabulary that contains “cultured”. What they found in that section was a group of words on the theme of learning, and so came the “educated left foot”.

It tends to be the left foot, perhaps because most of us are right-footed, so it is more remarkable to see a left leg performing sporting works of art.

So there you are: a little tapas plate of expressions that are making their way in the world of the English language. Odd, slightly misshapen, maybe mutant, but hoping to slope along with a hood up and eventually be accepted by the authorities.

The English Pedant – Why is it so hard to say thank you?

Something most of us are taught as children is to say please and thank you. It’s a matter on which there can be no discussion, certainly  in the UK, and those of us brought up with it find it hard to understand why others don’t do it.

Even Americans, most of whom would consider themselves polite, will say to a bartender, “Gimme a Scotch,” while we wouldn’t dream of it. We’re the customer, so we’re in charge and if we want a Scotch, the guy would have to have a very good reason not to give it to us. And yet we will dress the request up with ingratiating words. “Could I have  Scotch please,” or “I’d like a Scotch, please.” Say “Gimme” in that way to a British bartender and you’re asking for trouble.

We can’t even say “I want,” because that is supposed to be rude. We have to say “I’d like”. In the UK there is a saying: I want doesn’t get. It’s hard to explain this to speakers of another language, for whom saying “I want…” is a simple statement of fact.

Some language students are grateful for this advice, while others are slightly offended that you should think so badly of them. But it has to be done.

It is even harder to convince them that when they decline an offer, they have to thank the offerer for thinking of it. Thus when someone asks, “Would you like a cup of tea?” they should say “No thank you.” To just say no is plain rude in our book, but not in theirs, and some will go along with it for a while, but stop doing it at some point. I have even been told, “You know I mean it politely, so do I have to do it every time? To you?”

Well I’m sorry (excessive British politeness there), but yes, you do.

At some point in the last 20 years, as formality has been steadily eroded, saying thank you has been left isolated, like a rock left exposed by the retreating tide. And it has made certain people uncomfortable, feeing like a sap for behaving in such an obsequious way.

This is particularly prevalent among 20-something British men, naturally programmed to show themselves as tough and not yet ready to accept that toughness is sometimes best expressed by humility.

These people can’t say “Thank you” for anything – not for ordinary things, anyway. They might summon the decency in the event of being saved from drowning, but in normal circumstances, no. And yet the voice of their mother is in their head. Be polite.

So what comes out is “Cheers”. This is the British greeting uttered when we are given an alcoholic drink. We raise the glass and say “Cheers”.

So the young man who can’t bring himself to use the proper words can say “Cheers’ without losing face, without showing weakness in front of his peers.

“Cheers for that,” he will say.

Don’t mention it, mate. Thank you for having the guts to say even that.

The English Pedant – The difficulty of keeping it simple

Sounding like a foreigner is less desirable than ever in these days of immigration and resentment. Even if we look different from most people (which obviously we can’t do much about), a good grasp of the language can go a long way towards getting us accepted.

One of the most frustrating things about teaching English to people who already speak another language is when they ask you why a certain thing happens and all you can say is “It just does”.

Take verbs, for instance. A long-distance Dutch student of mine, who still sends me her academic essays etc. to check before she hands them in, recently forgot how to make the simple past tense of English verbs. She had fallen back into an old habit of using “did” with the infinitive. I did walk to college. I did speak to my tutor.

You know what she means. You know she’s telling you it was in the past, but that is not the point. She’s getting it wrong, and that means she sounds less intelligent than she is. And more to the point, she sounds more foreign, and one of the chief gripes of the less tolerant is when people don’t learn to speak their language.

This girl – let’s call her  Sophie – came to me in Suriname when she was applying to American universities and wanted to give the impression (the correct impression, as it happens) that she could slot right in with a class of American students, understand the lecturers and do the work. She is probably the most advanced student I’ve ever had – and a nice girl, too. It’s not just students who can enjoy or not enjoy a class; the teacher is giving up 90 minutes of his life for it too. It’s a lot better all round if both parties enjoy the time.

Anyway, Sophie moved back to Holland – didn’t go to America, but continued studying in English – and somehow forgot about past tenses.

I dug out some material, hoping to explain it to her in a flash and send her some files, but of course it’s not that easy. There are regular verbs and irregular verbs. With a regular verb you just add ed or d to the infinitive. I walk, I walked. I like, I liked.

But you immediately trip over irregular ones. I run, I ran. I speak, I spoke.

And there isn’t a simple answer to the question of why it is like that, apart from “It just is.”

If you look at the English language as something to be improved and simplified, that is certainly somewhere to start. Get rid of the irregularity. I run, I runned. I sit, I sitted. Why not?

All languages have their seemingly pointless aspects that confound the non-native speaker. Look at French, with its insistence on the adjective reflecting the gender of the noun. Haut and bas (high and low) have to be haute and basse if the noun they are describing is feminine. Everything is either le or la, and you sound like a dolt if you get it wrong. To the outside observer, it’s an unnecessary complication.

In German they’re not even happy with two genders: they have masculine, feminine and neuter: der, die and dass.

Who needs it? What difference does it make? In English we have been getting along with just plain the for centuries. Why don’t all countries address the quirks of their language and give the foreigners a chance?

There will probably never be a common global language, largely due to our overriding nationalism and the sheer practical issues that would have to be tackled – the trillions of words and billions of documents to be translated.

It’s been tried, but with little success. Esperanto was invented in 1887, based on European languages, and while it is claimed that some 2million people speak it, I have never met anyone who does; have you? If something similar were attempted today, it would take hundreds of years to develop, with law suits flying around the world as China demanded to have its principles taken into account, and then smaller parts of China spoke up for themselves, along with Russians, Tibetans and Indians, Swedes, Slovaks and Somalis.

The only thing that would make it happen is if the Earth was facing invasion by another planet and the military commanders needed to be able to communicate  quickly and easily. There would need to be delaying tactics while the assembled brains of every country got together and thrashed it out, and then mass teaching took place everywhere.

But you know what would really happen? English speakers and Spanish speakers would squabble and remain unreconciled, while the Mandarin speakers quickly learned how to say “Hang on, what about us?”

There would be no point in having a global vote, because everyone would just vote for themselves, so you might as well just count the people. But that would be so open to fraud that it would have to come down to a simple lottery, live on TV across the world. There are two short straws and one long one. The representatives of the three options step forward one by one and continent-wide gasps throw the planet off its axis so that it plummets towards its aggressor, which has manoeuvred itself  dangerously close.

And then bang! The universally understood term, goodbye. Auf wiedersehen. Ciao. Au revoir. And a couple of symbols in Mandarin.