English isn’t my inner makeup, even after speaking it for more than fifty years I’m often puzzled or maybe charmed by its usage. When I first came to England, I was classed as an Alien, no one would call me that now, but when I hear the wild use of words floating through the air I do wonder if the authorities were right. I’ve got my ‘Alien’ ear picking up what words get up to.
When people brew tea they say ‘The kettle is boiling.’ I’m confused, what will they end up with? A cup full of liquid kettle with a tea bag thrown in? Or they say ‘I walked through the door into the sitting room and there she was…’ Invisible beings walking through solid doors. Overheard at the pharmacist ‘Have you got something for this cough?’ ‘Now what would the cough like? An amplifier?’ There you have it. Words having a field day.
Why do people tell me in so many words that they are honest? ‘To be honest.’ ‘I will be honest.’ ‘To be perfectly honest.’ In all honesty.’ ‘Let’s be honest.’ ‘I’m not telling a lie.’ Everybody is saying it, even the weather man ‘To be honest, if it doesn’t rain today it will tomorrow.’ As an Alien, I am on my guard, what do they mean? If they’re honest now, what were they before? Can I believe them when they don’t say ‘To be honest’? Or even when they say it?
Funny things happen on TV. They ‘break the news’. And the weather men herald ‘nice weather courtesy of a system of high pressure’, and guess what’s ‘on offer’: ‘glorious wall-to-wall sunshine’. The power of words! They make the sun shine wall-to-wall. But ‘make sure you take sun screen’ and of course ‘enjoy it while you can’. Is that an order or a habit of speech? Who’s behind the order? And who’s behind the habit of speech? And why are they saying it?
Words can feel like bullies, too. ‘Absolutely’ knocks out ‘yes’. ‘Tragic’ puts the knife in ‘sad’. ‘Literally’ hits ‘really’ hard. And ‘epic’. An ‘epic funeral’. Imagine an ‘epic funeral’! And ‘virtually impossible’ or maybe ‘literally impossible’? A gang of criminals get a combined sentence of 850 years. What does it mean? That all are one with a life span of hundreds of years? And then the half-dead patient lying in his hospital bed ‘fighting for his life’. How does he fight? Who does the fighting?
‘Well, I mean, yes, it’s like this, you see…’ To be honest, is this how you start a sentence? Clearly words that literally don’t know what they’re going to say.’ Absolutely! It happens time after time after time after time. A working man doesn’t exist, only a ‘hard-working’ man. People who rescue a cat from a tree are ‘heroes’. It’s not six weeks but ‘six long weeks’. And let’s be honest, I have to literally ‘thank you very much indeed’. Anything less will not do.
And yet, it’s quite good fun, isn’t it? Let’s be perfectly honest, those words with a life of their own are doing just that, having fun. At our expense? You can’t blame them, can you? We have nobody to blame but ourselves. No wonder we always have to ask people ‘Do you see what I mean?’ ‘Are you with me?’ ‘Do you follow me?’ The words can do with us what they like. We have no power over them. Or do we? Ah! The charm of the English language!