Meaningless conversation with a first-class pedant

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The Independent Online
'I s there anyone sitting here?' I said to the man in the train.

'Not that I am aware of.'

'I mean, is the seat taken?' I said.

'No. It's free. Or to put it another way, very expensive.'

I thought about moving next to someone less interesting, but there weren't any other seats free. So I sat down beside him and went through the ritual of rearranging my newspaper. First, I unfolded it and tried to fold it back on itself. As usual, I failed disastrously and ended up holding something that looked like a failed origami swan. It was hard not to bat the man in the face as I went through my contortions.

'Sorry,' I said, 'but that's the snag with these broadsheets. I am seriously thinking of swapping over to a tabloid.'

'Ever wondered where the word tabloid comes from?'

'No,' I said. I started reading, but it was too late. His words had triggered off useless speculation in my mind. Why was it called 'tabloid'? I could see why broadsheet papers were called 'broadsheet', but tabloid?

''Because it fits easily on a table,' I suggested.

'No,' he said.

I lapsed into silence. I gave up the paper. I started the book. It was a boring book. I put it down.

'The fact of the matter is . . .' I started.

'The fact of what matter?'

I opened my mouth. I closed it again. Dammit, I didn't know what matter the fact was of. Normally I wait about half an hour before I go to the buffet car, but I needed to go now.

'I'm going to the buffet,' I said politely. 'Want anything?'

'I would like a coffee.'

'Is it called tabloid because the design and layout is tabular?'

'No.'

'Fair enough.'

Ten minutes later I was back. I had two beakers of coffee, plus supplementary milk, sugar, etc.

'White or black?' I said.

'I'd like some milk, please,' he said. And then: 'Odd, isn't it, that we call white coffee 'white', when it is really brown? And white wine is really yellow. And white people are pinky-grey . . .'

'What I always say,' I said, 'is that colour is relative.'

'Do you always say that?' he said. 'Always?'

'Yes,' I said untruthfully. 'Especially in the mornings. May I ask you a question?'

'Go ahead,' he said.

'Why all this hair-splitting? Why all this pedantry? You remind me of a schoolmaster I used to have who, when you said, 'Can I go to the lavatory?' used to say 'I am sure you are capable of it, boy' and you could never go to the lavatory until you said: 'May I go to the lavatory, sir?'.'

'Odd, isn't it,' said the man, 'that all our common words for the place we go to spend a penny don't mean that at all? They all mean a place where we wash, like lavatory and toilet. Odd, too, that we still say 'spend a penny', isn't it? We don't have pennies any more, but we still say 'a penny for your thoughts'. Why not '1p for your thoughts'?'

'Look,' I said, 'you haven't answered my question yet. Why all this pedantry? Why all this hair-splitting?'

'There is a curse on me,' he said. 'I cannot hear something said without thinking what the words mean. I have to know what it means. I have to examine what people say.'

'You must be impossible to live with,' I said.

'I am,' he said. 'I am beginning to control it, though.'

'You haven't controlled it much with me,' I said.

'Oh, but I have,' he said. 'For instance, when you said you were going to the buffet, I was desperate to ask why the same word can mean a small cafe area and a blow with the hand.'

'I think 'buffet' is the French word for sideboard,' I said.

'And there's another thing,' he said. 'How can the same word mean a piece of furniture and a growth of whiskers?'

'What word?' I said.

''Sideboard.'

I got my book and paper together and moved to another coach. But when I got home the first thing I did was look up 'tabloid'. Apparently it comes from a small pill, or tablet, patented for its small, convenient size and registered as Tabloid. And ever since then I have found myself compulsively listening to what people say and wondering what it means. The man was right. It's a disease. If I meet him again, I'll wring his neck.

Funny word, 'wring'. I wonder where it comes from . . .

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