Archives for posts with tag: Meaning

Mothercare store front

I was at my mother’s house in England the other day, casting an eye over all the toys we had as kids, which she has saved of course, and which her grandkids now enjoy.

I came across the edge of a toy package from Mothercare. This company has been around for ages and is clearly a highly respected name in anything to do with children. I love the identity – which I think the company has now moved away from – with the little child image literally under the protection of the m of mother.

What struck me for the first time that I can remember was how outdated the name was; the actual words mother and care put together to make a new name, as many company and product brands do. Back when Mothercare came into being, parenthood was possibly the almost exclusive preserve of the female parent, and that’s simply not the case any more.

The funny thing is, and I feel this about many household names and brands, we never question the name. We see the word mothercare and we equate it with a parenting brand for children. This is what a brand does to us. We rarely take the name out of context, deconstruct it, before realising that it’s perhaps not as appropriate as it used to be.

I think there are lots of examples of this, brands that we take for granted because they’re much more than the sum of their words. Lots of them, hiding in plain sight.


In this sophisticated world that we live in, communication has become equally sophisticated. Technology is of corse front and centre in this.

But as the communication industry becomes more and mature, you tend to see quote a bit of the ‘opposite is true’ phenomenon. I define this as the situation where people say one thing but everyone else knows that they mean the 180-degree opposite. It’s pretty common in political situations, with both a small p and a large P.

Here’s a couple of examples:

  • ‘Asking for a friend’. We all know that they’re not asking for a friend, they’re asking for themselves. This has become a standard joke these days in potentially embarrassing ‘Agony Aunt’-type situations
  • ‘Such-and-such has the full support of the board.’ Whether they’re a sports manager or a political leader, this can only mean one thing: they don’t have the full support of the board and their days are numbered

Note that I don’t include¬†Fake News in this category. That’s the type of communication designed to dupe us all into believing that the opposite of the opposite is true.

I’ve always prided myself on being honest and saying what’s on my mind. Not necessarily framed in a hurtful or undiplomatic manner, but one that leaves no room for misunderstanding. After all, people, especially customers, need to know what you’re thinking. They also need to be advised what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

It turns out, of course, that the Brits have long been guilty of not exactly saying what they mean, as the table here will testify. I’m indebted to James Trezona of Rooster Punk for drawing my attention to this table, though the version I’ve shown is borrowed from here. In this sense it would seem that the Brits are similar to other peoples, like the Japanese for example, in eschewing direct feedback.

Anglo-EU Translation Guide

Anglo-EU Translation Guide


I do think, though, that this British habit of hiding behind the nuances of the mother tongue is gradually dying out. You could put this down to a bunch of mega trends I guess: globalisation, American cultural influences, the erosion of the British class system, our increasing inclination not to waste precious free time, to name but a few.

If it’s not dying out, then it’s certainly lessening from a bracing wind to a gentle breeze.

Or maybe something else is at work here? Maybe we’re not very good at delivering bad news. Maybe we’re too willing to soften the blow for our audience and ourselves. Either way, I think we’re getting better at that too.

There is, however, still sufficient truth in the table, and sufficient difference between what Brits say and what they mean Рand differences between two situations is of course the root of humour Рfor it to be seriously funny.