Archives for category: Language

It seems odd to me that we European English speakers diverge from our US counterparts in our use of the words over and again.

When we on the eastern side of the Atlantic have to repeat something we start again. Sometimes we might have to do it over again. In the US and perhaps Canada they simply start over, never starting again or over again.

It’s a bit like the John Lennon song, no doubt crafted for an American audience while he was living over there with Yoko Ono, I think, called Starting Over. Perhaps he too was hedging his bets when he said It’s like Starting Over, with the ‘like’ seeming to soften the statement somewhat, as if he wasn’t sure.

Speaking of idiom, I was talking with an Iranian friend of my mother’s the other day. He said, after almost a lifetime of living here, “I can’t understand why you English people say ‘Would you like to come in for a nice cup of tea?’ Whoever would ask for a horrible cup of tea?”

Good point, well made. I was careful to ask for a horrible cup of tea the next time I was visiting.

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I’ve blogged before about how a preposition can make an enormous amount of difference. None more so, I don’t think, than in this example.

‘I believe you’ seeks to assure someone that you think they’re telling the truth. It’s almost like letting them off the hook if their story or defence is flimsy and they’re clutching at straws. It’s hardly a glowing endorsement.

Contrast this with ‘I believe in you.’ This has an altogether more committed, almost spiritual tone of endorsement about it. You’re placing your trust and faith in another person, and perhaps this is the greatest compliment or statement of togetherness that you can pay¬† them.

It changes the verb, the sentence structure and the meaning completely.

In the US it’s not uncommon for people to put the phone down or kill a telephone call without saying goodbye. It’s not considered rude. We’ve seen it on TV and film a hundred times. That’s not to say it’s not mildly unnerving to a European the first time it happens.

At the other end of the extreme are people that say bye multiple times at the end of a call. It’s as if they’d be terrified if the person at the other end didn’t hear them formally close the conversation, so they double- and triple-up to be sure.

I heard this staccato farewell a lot in Scotland when I lived there and you hear it a lot in Ireland. It’s a rat-tat-tat delivery of multiple byes that has a natural cadence of its own: 3 quick byes and 3 longer byes over a 3-second-or so period. Sort of a ‘ba-bye-bye [very short pause] bye-bye-bye.

I have a Belgian friend who always closes the call with a ba-baaaaaye, one short blast and a long blast, and then he’s done.

Me? I prefer a punchy ba-bye, that’s it. Simple, decisive, clear.

Speed camera warning sign in Ireland

I passed a scruffy truck the other day and as I passed I saw a notice on the back, which said: ‘This truck is equipped with visual recording technology’, presumably to ward off would be thieves or stowaways.

Next to the words was a symbol of a camera, and it was exactly the same type of image you see on signs all over Irish roads, warning you against speeding by the presence of speed cameras. Except there aren’t any speed cameras generally, except mobile ones housed in a vehicle. So the sign has come to me to be considered a fake symbol. Whenever I see the speed camera sign my reaction is, ‘oh, no speed cameras here, but probably a well known speedy stretch – or potentially dangerous stretch, or both – is coming up’.

And so it was with this truck. My first thought was, ‘no it’s not equipped with that technology’. It’s like the visual equivalent of fake news, or at least reverse news. A sports club announces it’s fully behind their beleaguered manager, they’re on the way out.

Call it middle aged suspicion, but since the advent of April Fools’ Day in my childhood years I’ve become conditioned to look out for fake news, and fake symbols are no different.

Biannual, biennial, it’s tough to remember which one means which, what timespan we’re talking about, isn’t it?

The prefix bi generally means 2, as in biped or bipolar, so one means 2 times a year and the other means every 2 years, so not much help there.

Taking a look at the suffix, annual means yearly, and -ennial is, well, quite similar. A perennial plant is one which lasts a while, rather than something that shows up every year, so again we’re slightly in the dark.

As it turns out, biannual means twice a year, and biennial means every 2 years. I suppose you could say biennial is like triennial, which is once every 3 years, as long as you don’t think it means 3 times a year…hmmm.

I haven’t found a good way to remember which is which, other than the raw facts themselves, which is harder to do the older you get. Us older folk tend to learn via patterns rather than by rote these days.

One area that highlights the division between American English and English English, as opposed to other versions of English, is the different pronunciations and accentuations on words.

Take the words laboratory and controversy for example. Our US friends prefer to accent the first syllable and the English prefer to accent the second, and continue to do so, despite the huge influence of American English on our daily European lives.

One difference I can’t get my head around is munging the last syllable of words that end in ‘-ile’. I remember watching an eipsode of the 6 Million Dollar Man back in the mid-seventies and they talked about a dangerous ‘missle’. What the heck’s a missle? In English English we put the accent on the first syllable but still give the second syllable a bit of a dance as well.

Futile is another one. Or Fyewtle as the Americans would say. Now that’s a futile pronunciation if ever there was one.

There are plenty of laudable examples of American English changing the spelling of words for simplicity’s sake. I offer you color, realize, maneuver and celiac for that argument.

But futile, missile, versatile, agile? Why not change the spelling on those too?

Business is awash with shorthand.

Good shorthand uses TLAs or jargon that everyone understands to save time and effort. Bad shorthand leaves people unproductive, confused and alienated.

I’ve always used ‘mktg’ as a shorthand for marketing. So much so that I use it in the domain name for my business website, M4 Marketing. It’s a nice short domain. The only problem I have is that I have to spell out the domain name over the phone, which is not ideal.

I think that the mktg shorthand is good shorthand, no? It’s like ‘mgmt’ for management. Pretty much everyone knows that shorthand and uses it freely.

The Irish have a great word: passremarkable. It’s used to describe someone who is wont to pass remarks, usually of a personal nature, about someone or something.

You could say it means being judgemental, but that’s not quite right. It’s having no filter – or choosing to ignore the filter – between thought and speech. You usually associate it with, and I’m generalising considerably here, younger people and older people.

I always avoid being judgemental if I can. And especially being passremarkable. Better to give a feeling or opinion some thought and phrase your comment constructively than blurt out something that will probably offend. What are you hoping to accomplish?

And this, of course, applies in business as well as our personal interactions.

 

I was renewing my driving license the other day, which necessitates a personal visit to the driving license centre to bring paperwork and get one’s photo done.

The chap that served me was a trainee, but he wasn’t a young chap, bright-eyed or bushy-tailed. He handed me back my old driving license, telling me I ‘could keep it for prosperity’. I mention his middle age because he must have heard that phrase, or something similar, a good number of times in his life. He wasn’t recycling it having heard it for the first time.

I let it go, after all, he meant ‘posterity’, didn’t he? I guess you could argue he meant prosperity, but maybe he either thought the phrase was prosperity or that it should be. One could claim that the old license could indeed influence my prosperity, but I’m not buying it, though I did buy the license, for a darn higher amount than I was expecting.

This is a malapropism I think, if it was for the former reason, where you mistake a word for another word, sometimes with humorous consequences.

He then took the old license back again to make a copy, but forgetting to return it to me. When I reminded him that he said I could keep it, he apologised, took it out of the copier and said, ‘yes, sorry, I said you could keep this for prosperity.’

He must have meant it then…

Referendum leaflet and interloper

Our household, along with a million or two other households, recently received a document on the upcoming referendum in Ireland concerning the regulation of the termination of pregnancy, more commonly known as the 8th amendment to the constitution.

The document is billed as an independent guide, produced by the government to explain citizens’ rights and options. It is a superbly written document, with clear, plain languages – English and Irish starting at each end of the booklet and joining up in the centre pages with an illustration of how to complete the ballot paper – and very well laid out.

This is no mean achievement, to summarise impartially what is involved and how the voting process works in what continues to be a most emotive, divisive and political issue.

What I found most incongruous was this. The leaflet came with an insert advertising a credit card service from the state-owned postal network ‘An Post’, supported by a well-known supermarket chain. I don’t know what’s going on here. Maybe the government decided to defray the cost of producing and distributing the document by getting one of the state bodies to part-fund it and do some fancy cross-charging. Perhaps they felt this was the perfect opportunity to market a service within a document that was benefitting from near total and national distribution.

Either way, it felt inappropriate to me. In my view it detracts from and denigrates the importance of the guide, regardless of the financial benefit. It could be just me though..