Not half bad at English, considering ...

Miles Kington
Sunday 06 July 1997 23:02

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.

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