The hoary old tongue that blows down the dog and bone

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The Independent Online
TODAY I am presenting one in an occasional series of seminars to help those who are learning English as a foreign language. Bonne chance, as we say]

Q. What does it mean to say, 'I am slowing down'?

A. It means you are getting slower.

Q. And what does it mean to say 'I am slowing up'?

A. It also means you are getting slower.

Q. So 'to slow up' means the same thing as 'to slow down'?

A. That's right]

Q. What does it mean to say 'I am speeding up'?

A. It means you are getting faster.

Q. And what does it mean to say 'I am speeding down'?

A. It does not mean anything.

Q. So you can say 'to slow up' but not 'to speed down'?

A. That is correct.

Q. I must say, it is not easy to learn English.

A. You're darn tootin'.

Q. I am sorry?

A. No - I am sorry. I shouldn't have said that. It is an old American expression.

Q. Do people not use old expressions in English?

A. Yes, but only English ones and only to be funny.

Q. I am sorry?

A. It is thought very funny in England to use old-fashioned or even forgotten words in a colloquial context.

Q. Can you give me an example?

A. Well, it is considered droll to address a pub's landlord as 'Mine host' or to call drink a 'tipple'. It is thought droll to refer to a writer as a 'scribe', or jocular to refer to a pub as a hostelry, a barmaid as a serving wench and a policeman as a constable. Or even as a constabule.

Q. Constabule?

A. Yes. Deliberate mispronunciation is also thought to be funny, as in 'picture-skew'.

Q. 'Picture-skew'?

A. Yes. That is a funny mispronunciation of 'picturesque'.

Q. Is it . . ?

A. Is it what? Is it funny or is it a mispronunciation?

Q. Is it funny?

A. No.

Q. Do you have any other examples of antique terms that are used humorously?

A. Perchance. Peradventure. More of that anon. For the nonce. Wherewithal. Filthy lucre.

Q. Thank you. Another thing I have noticed in the antique line is the persistent reference to outmoded procedures.

A. Such as?

Q. Well, the other day when President Clinton sent troops into Haiti, it was said that the operation had gone like clockwork. At first, I thought it meant that it had gone very slowly and rustily, but apparently it was a term of praise.

A. You are absolutely right. We use yesterday's terms to describe today's activities. Full steam ahead, we say, though we have not powered anything with steam for years. Something is a shot in the arm, we say, although this refers to a pre-drug use of injections. We say that someone is wanted 'on the blower' when we mean on the telephone.

Q. Was there a time when phones were operated by blowing?

A. You've got me there, squire, to coin another antique repro phrase. I think it may refer to the era of speaking tubes, when you blew down them first to attract attention at the other end.

Q. There is a certain arch quality to all this, is there not?

A. Yes. A lot of British humour is based in archness. One example of this is the arch and rather coy English pretence that you must not say 'I' when referring to yourself in a written article.

Q. How can you refer to yourself if you do not say 'I'?

A. Oh, easily. You say 'your scribe' or 'your correspondent' or 'this reviewer'.

Q. I see. Thank you.

A. Any other questions before we finish this lesson?

Q. Yes. When Mr Alan Clark said that he had been 'economic with the actualite', how did everyone know that he had used the French word actualite and not the English word 'actuality'?

A. Because it was spelt 'actualite' on the press release of the remark that Mr Clark put out.

Q. Do politicians put out press releases of their own jokes?

A. Mr Clark is no longer a politician. He is now an alternative comedian.

Q. Is that why he said any American casualties in Haiti would be caused by their own side, it being an American speciality to shoot their own troops?

A. Yes.

Q. Thank you.

A. Not at all.

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