For visitors who are lost for words

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The Independent Online
HELLO] Are you a person from overseas? Over here on holiday, perhaps? Visiting Britain for cultural reasons? Or just looking for political asylum?

Well, whatever the reason, you won't be here long. But while you are here, you will have to use the English language, and you may well need some help with it.

This is a most interesting and unusual language, in that newcomers to Britain have often noticed how it is possible to use a phrase that says one thing ('Let's keep in touch' or 'We must have lunch') while meaning the exact opposite.

What is not so often noticed is that there are many individual words in English which can have two different meanings, one the opposite of the other. It may help your stay in this country if I bring you a short selection of these double-edged words now.

Quite. This can mean 'very, absolutely', as in 'The judges have given top marks for a quite perfect dive' or in any sentence starting 'I am quite convinced', etc. It can also mean 'not very', as in 'It's quite mild this

morning' or 'I quite enjoyed the play'. Both meanings can happily exist in the same sentence: 'I am quite prepared to believe that you have quite good reasons for not being sent back to Yugoslavia, so we have decided to send you to Somalia


(The same difference can be observed with 'just'. 'Just what I wanted]' or 'Just the ticket]' has very different overtones from 'Well, I think we can just keep going till the autumn'.)

Well. This can mean either yes or no, depending on the intonation. 'Well, well, well] Look who it is]' means something very different from 'Well, I wish I could help you . . .'

Pair. Two, as in a pair of aces. One, as in a pair of trousers, scissors, etc.

Let. Implies permission and encouragement, as in 'We must let competition flourish'. Implies the opposite, as in 'a

let serve', or 'without let or


Forge. It seems odd, but you can use the word forge to mean either to make something real and genuine, or to make something fake and unreal. 'These pound notes have been very cleverly forged' has different implications from 'We must take steps to forge links of friendship between our two countries'.

Help. This means to promote an action, and also to prevent it. In the first sense, it is one of the favourite words of advertisers when they are not entirely sure how good the product is. As in 'Helps fight tooth decay]' or 'Helps stop your hair falling out'. It also means to stop doing something, as in 'I cannot help sneezing', or 'I wish I could help dozing off just when the cameras are on the Prime Minister and I am sitting just behind him'.

Act. Can mean to do something definite. It can also mean to pretend to do something


Rinse. Sometimes the action of rinsing means to use water to clean away all dirt, soap and other residue, especially from your hair. At other times it is used to mean to ADD colour and other qualities to your hair, as in 'I'm going to have a henna rinse'.

Trade. This may have the implication of absolutely fair treatment and exchange, as in 'trading places' or 'trading insults'. But a phrase such as 'Trade only' or 'Trade terms' implies the existence of a set of privileges and discounts that you do not, under any circumstances, qualify for.

Old. Old, as in old. Young, as in Old Etonian. (There is also a commercially sold cosmetic called 'Old Spice', whose name I have often felt to have interestingly conflicting overtones. A genuinely old spice would,

presumably, be dried up and odourless. But who would then want to buy it? So what do

the makers mean by 'Old' Spice?)

Courtesy. This refers to the spirit of spontaneous generosity, or good manners, freely given and taken. But it now also refers to products, especially in hotels, that the owner feels he has to give to the customer, but does so unwillingly. Real courtesy costs nothing and gives great pleasure. A courtesy shampoo, shower cap, soap or bath foam costs an appreciable amount and gives little pleasure, especially when it is impossible to open except with a corkscrew or two pairs of nail scissors.

Asylum. A place of refuge for people with genuine woes. A place of refuge for people whose woes are all imaginary.