October 26, 2011

Why can’t people just say what they mean?

Stephen Fry

Why can’t the English just say what they mean, dammit?

Stephen Fry’s Planet Word is an entertaining romp through the English language. It provides a timely reminder as to why people don’t always say what they mean, see the episode on uses and abuses of language for some entertaining examples. Talking of the divergence between what people say and what they actually mean, reminded me of this handy British / American English translation key (which comes via the good people at OpenHelix).

What the British say What the British mean What others understand
I hear what you say I disagree and do not want to discuss it further They accept my point of view
With the greatest respect I think you are an idiot They are listening to me
That’s not bad That’s good That’s poor
That is a very brave proposal You are insane They think I have courage
Quite good A bit disappointing Quite good
I would suggest… Do it or be prepared to justify yourself Think about the idea, but do what you like
Oh incidentally/ by the way The primary purpose of our discussion is… That is not very important
I was a bit disappointed that I am annoyed that It doesn’t really matter
Very interesting That is clearly nonsense They are impressed
I’ll bear it in mind I’ve forgotten it already They will probably do it
I’m sure its my fault It’s your fault Why do they think it was their fault?
You must come for dinner It’s not an invitation, I’m just being polite I will get an invitation soon
I almost agree I don’t agree at all They are not far from agreement
I only have a few minor comments Please re-write completely They have found a few typos
Could we consider some other options I don’t like your idea They have not yet decided

All human languages have the facility for the kinds of little white lies shown above, not just English. Life would be quite different if people always said precisely what they meant, and the English would have less fun confusing Americans with their ludicrous limey language.

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