Why must we always look on the trite side of life?

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The Independent Online
The way the British talk: an ongoing examination.

I WONDER if you can help me with a problem I have?

I will if I can.

I'm looking for a helpful phrase to use at times when a comforting word is needed. The other day, a friend of mine had lost his job, had his holiday in Russia cancelled because of a cholera scare and learnt that he was suffering from incurable halitosis. I put my arm round his shoulders and the only phrase that came into my mind was: 'Never mind - worse things happen at sea]'

And?

And I started thinking - what does that mean? What are these worse things that are meant to happen at sea? Why do worse things happen at sea than on land? And what are they?

Well, let's see - piracy? Yellow fever? Keelhauling? Losing your tidy clothes while on a five-week cruise? Hitting an iceberg?

They're all nasty things, but are they worse?

Worse than what?

I don't know. Worse things happen at sea, remember.

Oh, right. So what did you say to your friend?

Well, I thought of saying: 'It couldn't have happened to a nicer person', which is the frivolous way out, and I thought of saying: 'Things can only get better', which is demonstrably untrue, and I thought of saying: 'It's too bad . . .' but then I thought, what does that mean? What is too bad? Too bad for what? And then it started dawning on me that none of the phrases we use for condolences actually means anything.

Doesn't it? I mean, don't they?

Well, take 'Every cloud has a silver lining'. Totally untrue. Clouds don't have linings.

Not literally, no. It just means it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

That's wrong too. Some things are unrelievedly bad. Some situations are so hopeless you can't imagine them getting any worse.

Still, it's always darkest just before the dawn.

That's demonstrably untrue as well] It's darkest some time in the middle of the night. You get a glow in the sky long before dawn.

Well, it's no use crying over . . .

. . . spilt milk? Rubbish. It does you a lot of good to get it out of your system. A bit of a cry, a bit of a moan, a nice clean hanky - those are all recipes for recovery.

But surely, all other things being equal . . .

That's another one] That's as bad as 'Worse things happen at sea'] What does it mean? All other things - what other things? And being equal - being equal to what?

All right, all right, keep your hair on. How about, . . . how about, 'Least said, soonest mended'?

That's the same as 'No use crying over spilt milk'.

How about . . . 'It'll be all right on the night'?

Wishful waffle. Opening nights are notoriously fraught, especially at restaurants.

Do restaurants have opening nights?

Yes, and the soup always takes three hours to come. It's not all right on the night.

Hmm. How about, 'Dum spiro spero'?

What is that meant to mean?

It's Latin. It means, 'While I breathe, I hope'. While there's life, there's hope, that sort of thing.

People don't speak Latin these days. It would only make them feel worse if you did.

So, no 'Nil desperandum'?

No. The trouble with all these consoling phrases, you see, is that they are consoling. There is a terrible tendency among the British to make light of a situation, to look on the bright side, to offer a joke and a song instead of sympathy and advice. Looking on the bright side is, by definition, refusing to look at all sides of the situation.

So the best thing to do is not to cheer people up, but to look at the position honestly? To say to people, 'Well, they said it could never happen - but it has]' or, 'So there wasn't light at the end of the tunnel after all, just a fire raging out of control]'

Yes.

So if something terrible happens to you, you would like me to say, 'This tragedy is going to be a very useful learning experience for you, you lucky thing]'

No, no. You're looking on the bright side again.

This has been an extremely depressing interview. I feel totally dejected.

And yet nothing sad has happened] How lucky you are] You are feeling down in the dumps for no reason at all] So if something were really to go wrong now you would be in the right mood for it, and if nothing goes wrong, that's fine]

So it's best to look on the dark side? It's best to say, 'Worse things never happen at sea'?

Yes.

Well, thanks for nothing.

You're welcome.

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