Not half bad at English, considering ...

Related Topics
In the summer months Britain becomes home for crowds of foreigners seeking a cool and damp change from the blazing sunshine at home. When they arrive here, they discover an unsuspected hazard: the English language. The trouble with the English language, many of them complain to me, is that it is not spoken the same way that it is taught at home, and is full of phrases like "Don't mind if I do" and "Brass monkey weather", which are quite inexplicable.

So I have asked our visiting language expert, Professor Wordsmith, to deal with as many inquiries as he can before the money runs out. All yours, Prof!

What does it mean, this "Don't mind if I do" expression?

Prof Wordsmith writes: Many expressions in English are based on understatement. We do not like to exaggerate, so we tend to exaggerate by under-estimating. When it is freezing cold, we say, "Not exactly warm, is it?". When we like something passion-ately, we say, "Not half bad". When we want to do something quite badly, we say "Don't mind if I do".

How do you mean, "when we want to do something badly"? Does that mean you intend to do it badly? Or that it is bad to want it?

Prof Wordsmith writes: The latter. We feel it is wrong to express emotion, so when we say we want something, we say we want it badly - we are apologising as we say it. No other language has the equivalent expression, I'm sorry to say.

Talking of being "sorry", is that why the British say "I'm sorry?" when they haven't heard what you have said?

Prof Wordsmith writes: Yes. We are apologising for not having heard you.

How charming. Is there any sincerity in the expression?

Prof Wordsmith writes: Not a bit. Very often what British people say is totally at odds with what they mean.

Could you give an example?

Prof Wordsmith writes: Certainly. When someone says "Do you mind if I smoke?" or "Do you mind if I open a window?", they are not really asking you if you mind. They are announcing what they are about to do. In fact, the expression "Do you mind?" can be used by itself, but what it means is "Stop doing that or I'll punch you".

I see. Are there any more examples of British euphemism or understatement that I should know about?

Prof Wordsmith writes: Millions. If someone sees a film or play they don't like, they say it is "interesting". If someone says you have lost weight, it means you are looking too thin. If someone says in a restaurant that a course was "disappointing", it means it was really awful ...

I have noticed that the British use the word "awful" a lot. What do they mean by it?

Prof Wordsmith writes: Very little. "I'm awfully sorry to hear that", means "Oh, really?". To say of someone "He's awfully nice" means that he is just tolerable, considering ...

Considering what?

Prof Wordsmith writes: Considering how horrible he is. "Considering ..." is one of those expressions with which the British end a sentence in mid- air, leaving a row of dots like air bubbles on a pond ...

Are there many expressions like that?

Prof Wordsmith writes: Millions.

Such as?

Prof Wordsmith writes: When a British person ends a sentence with, "Know what I mean?" or "as the bishop said to the actress", or "give or take", or "all things being equal", or "depending ..."

Thank you. Oh, one final question. When it says outside a hotel in Britain "Private Functions Catered For", is that a euphemism for "Toilets"?

Prof Wordsmith writes: No.

Prof Wordsmith will be back soon with more help for foreign-ers trying to learn English.

Students of misprints in the Radio Times would have enjoyed an entry in last week's South West edition. In a TV drama called "Who Killed John Cabot?", the part of the Inquisitor was played by a fine male actor called Christian Rodska. Not according to the Radio Times, who sex-changed him into Christina Rodska.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
Photo match: Nicola Sturgeon on the balance beam on 27 April. Just like that other overnight sensation, Russian Olympian Olga Korbut, in 1972  

Election catch-up: SNP surge, Ed Balls’s giraffe noises, and Cameron’s gaffe

John Rentoul
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk