How to have a conversation without naming names

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE of the odd things about our age is that there are more and more things we cannot talk about, not because they are taboo, but because we do not know what they are called. The last time I brought this up I chose as one example the little strip of cellophane that you pull in order to undo the transparent wrapping on a new videotape. What's it called? How do you refer to it? Why do they so seldom work?

I got a letter shortly afterwards from a man who makes the things. He indignantly denied that the things ever failed to function (which sank his credentials straight off) and then told me what they are called. In fact, he confused me by giving me two or three alternative names for the things, which sank his cause beyond trace. What I want is a single, definite name that I can remember, not several fancy choices which have already faded from my mind.

Other things that do not have names include the free offers that fall out of magazines when you buy them, and the little booklets that hang by a piece of string from the neck of expensive foreign drink bottles. Also, the little packets of white powder that come with cut flowers. Also, the back doors on battery packets.

(Have you noticed the way these have sneakily come in? Batteries usually get sold in plastic see-through containers stuck on cards. You tear the plastic cover off and get the batteries out. Unfortunately, they are made so well, in order to protect the batteries, that they are almost impossible to tear off. So the battery makers have perforated the back of the card to make an easy-to-remove back door, thus almost certainly undoing any advantages of the protective plastic cover. This is called locking the stable door and leaving a back door open so the horse can escape).

The odds are that if you have never had a conversation about any of these things, it is partly because you don't know what they are called and therefore cannot talk about them. Another example? Well, have you ever heard a sort of loud noise in a mini-market or supermarket, like a child shooting his parent? And have you gone round the corner to investigate and found a shop assistant in a white coat sticking prices on to items with a sort of sticky label gun? And am I right in thinking that you have never ever discussed this with anyone? Partly, at least, because you haven't the faintest idea what a price-tag gun is called?

Why, you may ask, should anyone want to talk about them? Well, here is an example. I sometimes come back from a wine chain shop such as Thresher with a nice bottle of wine, and when it is finished, I say, 'Mmm, not bad considering it cost only . . .' and I look on the bottle for the price, but all there is is a little sticky tag with the shop's code, which means absolutely nothing to me and is only there for Mr Thresher's convenience so that he can change the price whenever he wants to, and I then want to initiate a discussion by saying: 'Why the bloody hell can't Mr bloody Thresher stick the actual price on with his bloody price tag space blaster or whatever it's called?'

But I don't.

There are things that have come into our lives in the last 10 years which do have names, and yet oddly we don't talk about these much, either. Stamps, for example. As in this common conversation, to be heard in shops every day.

'Who shall I make the cheque payable to?'

'Don't worry - I've got a stamp.'

A stamp used to be a thing you put on a letter to make sure it got to London five days later. No longer. Now it is something that people put on your cheques - and which you never check. Am I right? Do you ever check to see if the stamp actually prints out the name of the shop? And have you ever thought how easy it would be for a shop assistant to get her own 'stamp' made, so that when she said: 'Don't worry, I've got a stamp,' she actually stamped your cheque not with the name of the shop (Easy-Rite Groceries) but her own name (Miss Millie Lavender) and cleared a good pounds 500 one morning before scarpering?)

Coming soon: why should anyone now need something called a 'hair conditioner', after we have got through a million years of evolution without even suspecting that hair needed conditioning, let alone with a plant called jojoba?