Mind your Language!



It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him – George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion


Language is everything to the British, from what we say to how we say it.  Those from Edinburgh are said to speak the best English, although I’m not sure where I heard that.  Tony Blair was criticised for his “Estuary English” (and much else besides) and Call Centres like to employ Geordies because their accent is said to be engaging (I think that’s right or I may have made it up).

However, two recent articles have made me think that the problem is not so much how we speak but what we speak of that causes problems.  For instance, see this table below, which I shamelessly ripped off from the Daily Telegraph. It describes the problems that foreigners have in understanding what we say, because of our famed “reserve” and ‘politeness”.

My own particular favourite is “With the greatest respect” which really means “You are an idiot” but a non-native English speaker would translate as “He is listening to me”. Do you remember this exchange from Yes Minister between Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby?

Humphrey: And, with respect, Minister-
Hacker: Don’t-don’t use that filthy language to me, Humphrey.
Humphrey: Filthy language, Minister?
Hacker: I know what “with respect” means in your jargon. It means you’re just about to imply that anything I’m about to suggest is beneath contempt.

Those of you of a certain age might remember the awful TV adverts for Paul Masson Californian Carafe wines in the 1980/90s.  The strapline was uttered by an American saying (in a sort of received pronunciation English way) “They’re really jolly good”, which to a British person of course  translates as “Did your cat produce this?”

 Here’s the list in all its marvellous glory

I hear what you say I disagree and do not want to discuss it further He accepts my point of view
With the greatest respect You are an idiot He is listening to me
That’s not bad That’s good That’s poor
That is a very brave proposal You are insane He thinks 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 it’s 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 He’s not far from agreement
I only have a few minor comments Please rewrite completely He has found a few typos
Could we consider some other options I don’t like your idea They have not yet decided

The Daily Telegraph 2/9/13

A close second from this list is number 11 – “I’m sure it’s my fault”, meaning “It’s your fault”, which would leave a foreign speaker completely confused.  Not on the list is “I don’t mind” or its close relation “I’m not bothered” by which a British person really means “You must be joking”, but a foreigner would believe means “They’re open minded and flexible about this”.

One thing I’m not open minded and flexible about is my reaction to some of the words and phrases that get bandied about in business.  Just before I went off on holiday couple of weeks ago I saw this article on Linked In by Bernard Marr about those irritating phrases that put the “jar” into jargon.

  1. Going forward
  2. Drill-down
  3. End of play
  4. Touch base
  5. It’s on my radar
  6. No brainer
  7. Best of breed
  8. Low hanging fruit
  9. Reach out
  10. Dive deeper
  11. Think outside the box
  12. Positive momentum
  13. On my plate
  14. At the end of the day
  15. Run the numbers
  16. Touch points
  17. Keep your eye on the ball
  18. Back to the drawing board
  19. Get the ball rolling
  20. Bang for your buck
  21. Close the deal
  22. When the rubber hits the road
  23. Shift paradigm
  24. Move the needle
  25. Game-changing
  26. Move the goal post
  27. Value added
  28. Win-win
  29. Across the piece
  30. All hands on deck

During the course of corresponding with opponents in the course of work I find HR people and Americans are very keen to “reach out” to me: reach out for what?  My throat?

Or perhaps they’re trying to grab hold of that ”low-hanging fruit” or stretching to “touch base”?

I was surprised that no one was taking a “helicopter view” – is that now out of fashion?

 @MJCarty suggested a Twitter campaign amongst #ukemplaw followers to ban these words. Or if not an outright ban, how about a “swear box system” = everytime one of your colleagues (or you) uses one of these phrases in speech or an email/twitter, the y have to donate  £1 to a chosen charity?   If you’re in agreement please leave a comment below or on Twitter.

Then after donating,  I think users of these phrases  should “dive deeper”, taking on some “positive momentum” “going forward” and drilling deeper, preferably until they reach the Earth’s core. 

Michael Scutt, Employment Solicitor 

Employment solicitor with Crane and Staples, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. Blogger & writer. I like cycling, cricket, football and history.