I’m not being funny

Nobody who saw the TV series Gavin and Stacey could forget Alison Steadman’s brilliant portrayal of Pam, the neurotic Essex mother who runs a tight but affectionate ship with her son Gavin, and Mick, her long forbearing husband. One of Pam’s signature phrases before handing out  well-meaning  advice is ‘I’m not being funny’ as in ‘I’m not being funny Stacey, but you want to get a life; what you just said was really boring‘.  The purpose of the opening phrase is to soften the potentially hurtful comment that follows.

Linguistics geeks call these phrases hedges, or mitigators, and they come in all shapes and forms. For example, one of my ex- bosses used to preface his objection to any of my suggestions with ‘ The thing is’, and then tell me why it wouldn’t work. Once those words were out, I knew my bright idea would be binned. And I often find myself trying get some conversational space in a robust family lunch or animated university seminar with the phrase ‘ could I just say?’

The British tend (there’s another one) to be more indirect and make liberal use of these devices. It might almost be part of our national psyche, Strangely though, the word basically attracted much cheek-sucking in the British press recently from prescriptive pedants who claimed that the word has no meaning.  But, basically, it is just another hedge, and a very useful rhetorical device carrying not propositional, but interpersonal  meaning.

Americans, being direct, use these devices much less and react either with bemusement  or impatience at the abundance of politeness forms that trip off our lips. The late Lauren Bacall, a no-frills Bronx girl, was supposed to have nipped the meandering tentativeness of  one English director in the bud with the admonishment ‘ Say what you want to say, goddamit’.



The Queen’s English


Nine months since I arrived and I am still linguistically intact. The first weeks I flirted with saying “take a left”  instead of “turn left”, but it didn’t take hold. I still say lift, not elevator, flat, not apartment, loo, not bathroom, and all the other Britishisms that amuse, irritate, or confound listeners. And I always forget how Americans say ‘data’ though I try that with what I like to think is an ironic eyebrow raise. ‘Italy’ is another one.

This is not due to any ideological stance or national pride: it is simply because I have been using those words so long that it would take a concerted effort on my part to replace them with their US equivalents, and I am using my concentration for other things now. It would also be fake,  as if I suddenly lost my Welsh accent and started to speak in Received Pronunciation. I know people have modified their accent for professional purposes, like Sue Lawley or Margaret Thatcher, but what happens when you stub your toe, or have one drink too many? Anyway, here my pronunciation is my party piece. People associate it with Downton Abbey or the Royal family (if only they knew). Recently a guy in the cafeteria was grilling chicken, and on hearing me ordering my  lunch, rotated his head at the speed of light and said ”  you sound like the Duchess of York” I couldn’t remember which of the Royals she was at first, but it didn’t sound promising and it wasn’t. And last week the hairdresser said as she lacquered the finishing touches , “Now you’re Princess Diana”.

It’s true what Shaw said about two peoples divided by a common language.  Many words are different and at times I get embarrassed when I can’t think of one.  For example, at the chemist’s when I needed some sticking plasters: “do you have something you put on a cut or blister?” (Band Aid – duh).  And when catching a train recently I blanked out completely,  ” which …er….what do you call the place where the train comes in?” (Answer: track). It’s a great exercise in circumlocution but I’m not sure your average New Yorker has got time for that.

As for erasers, that’s a whole other blog.