Some years ago, I was drinking in the Oasis bar in the west of Ireland, a popular meeting place for the local hunt.
Half an hour after the horses had galloped fox-wards, a couple of local farmers came in, dragging a stricken rider between them. He was a posh Anglo-Irishman, and his hunting-pink livery was covered in mud. Clods of slimy earth adhered to the seat of his tailcoat. Mossy twigs protruded from his collar. His eyes gazed out from a face smeared with ordure and grot.
As the farmers helped him upright, one of the pub regulars asked, “Was it in the wood, or at the dry-stone wall, that your honour fell off?” The mud-drenched aristo drew himself upright. “I did not fall orf,” he announced. “I got orf.”
Something about his dignified rebuttal came to mind when I read about the trial of Captain Francesco Schettino, who steered the Costa Concordia onto a reef last year and, as it capsized, scarpered for home, leaving hundreds of terrified passengers to their fate. He’s now in court in Tuscany, charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship.
A crucial bit of evidence against him was that he’d scrambled into a lifeboat long before the passengers were evacuated. “No I didn’t,” the Captain originally protested. “I didn’t scramble into a lifeboat. I accidentally tripped and fell into one.”
Ah, yes. So easy, isn’t it, to trip over on deck, and fall 10 feet sideways? I’ve done it a hundred times. And isn’t it maddening how, as you’re struggling to get out, they start winching the bloody thing down to the sea and so to safety?
Schettino’s lawyer, Domenico Pepe, evidently thought the “tripped-and-fell” excuse was unconvincing. (It’s often used by people in A&E departments with vacuum cleaner parts up their bottoms.) So on Tuesday, he offered the trial judges a different line of defence about the lifeboat incident. “The idea that he abandoned ship is a wrong interpretation,” he said. The Cap’n had been “lightly thrown off” the ship in the melee of panicking cruise-folk.
“Lightly thrown”, eh? A lovely phrase that suggests the Cap’n has a delicate, thistledown quality about him and can be wafted off his feet by a breeze. One look at Schettino’s thick-set, voluptuary’s frame suggests this is unlikely. But in the Land of Rubbish Excuses, anything goes. We can look forward to the Cap’n explaining how a flock of Tuscan hoopoes suddenly flew down, seized him in their beaks and dropped him in the poop; or that a gust of wind ballooned in his bell-bottoms and slewed him sharply to starboard. Either could be true, or could be just a pile of schettino.
Back to the future
An Aussie restaurateur called Paul Mathis has had an ingenious idea: using a single letter to represent the most frequently used word in the English language, namely “the.” His letter looks like this and he’s spent £23,500 on a promotional app to demonstrate its usefulness. “The word ‘and’ is only the fifth-most used word in English, and it has its own symbol – the ampersand,” he argues. “Isn’t it time we accorded the same respect to ‘the’?”
Yes, Paul, it is, but the English language has had a symbol for “the” for centuries. In Anglo-Saxon writing, it was called the “thorn” (it looked like this – þ) and gave Middle English scholars headaches because there was no ‘þ’ to be found in their printing fonts. So they used “y” instead, which is why we got Ye Olde Copper Kettle and its variants. To Mr Mathis his squiggle is the future. To us it’s the 2nd century AD. Strewth!