English Is Sneaky

English is an incredible language.  It has the delicate touch of Da Vinci’s smile or the turbulent sweep of a Constable sky.  It is the paint we use to conjure our audience’s imagination.  With it, we can flutter a hummingbird’s wing or charge the gates of Hell with righteous fury.  We can do anything with English — including hiding what we want to say in the very words we use to say it.  These are the sneaky words.  They’re usually an oxymoron like “preventable accident,” which sounds totally benign until you realize it actually means “You weren’t watching, you ignorant dolt.  If you’d been paying attention, none of this would’ve happened!”  Face it, folks: that’s exactly what a “preventable accident” really is.  There are a bunch of sneaky words like this that carry all kinds of baggage with them.  Here are just a few more.

1 — Minor crisis – This is a sneaky way of either ramping up the drama or playing down the problem.  The truth is, if it’s a crisis, it isn’t minor; and if it’s minor, it isn’t a crisis.  Either way, anyone who starts yipping about a “minor crisis” is probably riding the incompetence train.

2 — So-called – This is one of those tattletale words that instantly lets us know who the author is cheering for.  No matter how objective they may claim to be, when somebody says “so-called,” it’s never positive, and the connotation is always, “You can call it whatever you like, but we all know what’s going on here, you lying bastard.”

3 — Least favourite – These words have gotten a lot sneakier in recent history.  Back in the day, it was just a slippery way to say, “I don’t like that” without hurting anybody’s feelings.  But, these days, with the addition of 21st century sarcasm, the sky’s the limit on how far down the scrotum pole this can put you.

4 — No offence – These are the words we use when we’ve just offended somebody and we’re worried about getting punched in the face.  Normally, we tack them on at the end when we suddenly realize what we just said.  However, sometimes, when we want to get a kick in, we lead with them, and then add a “but” and a pause to let everybody know we’re the ones doing the punching this time.

5 — Open secret – Here’s another couple of tattletale words that tells us the author thinks he’s a lot smarter than we are.  The premise is there’s secret information available, but only a select group of people who are in-the-know, know it — and the connotation is always – not you.

6 — Zero tolerance – These are the words we use when we know we have a problem but we also know we can’t (or won’t) do anything about it.  For example, “Our school has zero tolerance for bullies.” means the skinny kid with glasses is still going to get kicked around like it’s World Cup, but once a year, we’re going to let him wear a pink t-shirt.

7 — Working holiday (vacation) – These are the sneakiest words in the universe.  They can mean anything.
a) – Your husband forces you to take a vacation, but you can’t stand the man, so you stay in the hotel and work.
b) – You want a vacation, but you have too much work to do.  So you go to Mexico and party with your girlfriend for two weeks and do all the work on the flight home.
c) – You want a vacation, but you’re broke– so you talk your company into sending you to a conference somewhere.
d) – You discover the dream vacation you booked online is a pestilent hole – “Oh, well!  Might as well get some work done.”

And finally:

8 — Passive aggressive – We all know what this means.  We all know someone who practices this dark art with delicious glee.  We all know we’d like to slap them for doing it.  However, we just don’t have the cojones to call them on it.  So instead of creating a scene with shouting, denial and tears, we say they’re passive aggressive (as if it’s an incurable mental condition) and put up with their manipulating bullshit.

What Did You Say?

English is a wonderful language.  It can be as precise as a surgeon’s scalpel or as broad as a two-handed claymore.  It can describe anything or leave everything to your imagination.  In fact, English is so kickass we can say things without ever actually even saying them!  For example, when your wife/girlfriend says, “Are you going to wear that?” you know she’s really saying, “There is no way in Hell you’re leaving this house dressed like that.”  It’s a beautiful bit of linguistic gymnastics that people use all the time.  Here are a few more examples.  (With translations.)

“Sorry I’m late.”
Translation — I hate these morning meeting, I hate this job and I hate you.  The only reason I even dragged my sorry ass out of bed is I’ve got a car payment and a massive student loan hanging over my head.

“I know I’m only going to be gone for a couple of days, but I’m really going to miss you.”
Translation — Any chance of having sex before I leave?

“No offence …”
Translation — I’m going to offend you.

“… no offence.”
Translation — I’m covering my ass just in case I’ve already offended you.

“I’m vegan.”
Translation — I want to talk about me.

“I don’t judge.”
Translation — What you just told me is totally weird, and it caught me completely off guard.  So, rather than saying something unfortunate and sounding like an insensitive jerk, I’m going to shut up now and hope you change the subject.

“Do you need any help?”
Translation — Please, please, please, please, for the love of God, please – say no.

“Do these jeans make me look fat?”
Translation — I’ve spent all day dealing with perky salesgirls, women’s sizes are works of fiction, nobody has any decent colours and my bra is cutting me in half.  The least you could do is take 5 seconds and tell me I’m sexy.

“It’s really not that bad.”
Translation – Wow!  Are you ever screwed!

“That’s okay: I’m a good listener.”
Translation — This is the longest sob story in history.  Now I know how Mandela felt.

“My children are my whole life.”
Translation — Five minutes!  All I want is five minutes.  I haven’t even gone to the toilet in peace in 2 years.  Five minutes!  Is that too much to ask?

“I’ll remember that.”
Translation — I’m too busy/lazy to write this down, and I’m going to kick myself in a couple of days.

“We’ve put together a pretty solid financial plan that will get us out of debt in a couple of years.”
Translation — The grandparents haven’t died yet.

“Have you lost weight?”
Translation — Call me scum, but I’m so glad you’re fatter than I am.

“I’m a people person.”
Translation — I don’t have any marketable skills.

And finally one of the most common ones:

“We need to get together/do lunch/go for drinks, soon/more often/sometime in the vague future.”
Translation — You and I are connected by circumstances and you seem like a nice person, so let’s play pretend for a few minutes — until we can go back to our real lives.

Big Word Day — 2021

What this planet needs is Big Word Day.  One day a month (I suggest the first Monday) when we’re allowed to use those big godawful words that make us all sound like pompous asses.  Then, at midnight, everybody has to go back to talking (and writing) like regular people.  Big Word Day would not only clear the air of pretentious language, it would shorten business meetings, reduce government bullshit and keep corporations from drowning us in doublespeak policies, warranties, guarantees and disclaimers.  (What’s the difference between a warranty and a guarantee, anyway?)  I know big words are tempting and I’m as guilty as the next person, so I understand why we like to sound as if we just stepped off Oxford Common — but it’s getting out of hand.  We don’t buy things anymore; we purchase them.  We don’t help; we facilitate.  We don’t think; we conceptualize. And — horror upon horrors — we don’t talk; we verbalize.

The big problem with big words is people don’t think that way.  We think in broad abstractions that get translated into words when we speak (or write) so we can communicate meaning.  For example, when I write “John saw a girl” unless you’re a Himalayan holy man who’s lived alone in a cave for 50 years, you see the girl, too.  Your girl and John’s girl might not look the same, but the meaning is clear.  This is because my words are a direct translation of my thoughts.  However, when I write, “John observed a girl” things get a little muddled.  Suddenly, because of nuance and connotation, John isn’t passive anymore.  The girl is still the object of the sentence but John is definitely more involved.  He’s deliberately doing something.  Hey!  Wait a minute!  Who is this guy?  What is he, some kind of stalker?  You see, the meaning has changed.  This might be a bit of an exaggeration (after all, I haven’t clarified whether John had binoculars or not) but my point is it’s more difficult to translate words into meaning when they’re carrying extra baggage.  And big words all carry tons of baggage.

Don’t get me wrong; big words are important.  English is a precise language with surgical accuracy, so I don’t want to get rid of big words altogether.  I just think, these days, they’ve slipped the leash and I want to corner them and get them under control again.  Big Word Day would do that.  It would force us to quit utilizing big words all the time and only use them when they’re necessary.  Plus, and this is the good bit, jerks with an intellectual chip on their shoulders would have to shut the hell up most of the time — and that alone would be worth it.