STARTLING EXPRESSIONS

I will be busy for the next couple of weeks and there will be no new post until on or before Wednesday 12th December

STARTLING EXPRESSIONS

Quaint turns of phrase can delight and irritate in equal measure, and it’s true to say there are certain phrases some people use to excess that can set one’s teeth on edge, so that you have to do deep breathing to avoid going into a Basil Fawlty rant at them, or worse. Someone I once knew used the expression ‘blah di blah’ with a piercingly nasal inflection up to four times per ten sentences of speech, as a means of shorthand summary, instead of the more neutral ‘etc etc’ or ‘and so on’ and had clearly no idea either of the frequency, or of the grating nature of that far from sonorous expression. As a rule, I am more tolerant than most of the words folk use either in conversation or in emails (as opposed to the creative written word) but hearking back to acronyms as discussed recently, a couple of weeks ago and for the first time ever I discovered the remarkable ATB. Slow off the mark as I am, I immediately understood that it was meant as ‘All The Best’, the standard valediction at the end of an email, but it had an instant effect in 2 ways contrary to the author’s expectations. It was a round robin sent out by someone I knew to have an enormous address book, and it was asking for a touching favour for a third party. But the fact that the writer couldn’t be bothered to write a single All the Best, which takes what 3 seconds to type? inevitably made me think less of him and also somehow invalidated the selflessness of his request, though not of course the request itself. It would take the doubtless busy recipients of his round robin maybe 10-15 minutes to execute the desired favour, and he who begged the favour could not be bothered to take 3 seconds just to wish his correspondents well.

On the comedy side, possibly the most startling expression I have ever heard in my life was in 1974 at a cousin’s house in West Cumbria where his 4-year-old daughter Tansy was playing with her 4-year-old friend William. I hadn’t seen William for some time and he was one of those old-fashioned little boys who seem like the miniature already pre-edited version of exactly how they would look as a frowning adult. He had a solemn, moonlike extremely scrubbed face, he sniffed a lot, often appeared comically pensive, and he resembled very much a good-looking miniature version of the controversial comedian Benny Hill, currently at his worldwide zenith in 1974.

“How are you William?” I asked him by way of pleasant conversation.

He looked at me sagely, in a way most pintsize 4-year-olds would not, as if the enquiry were a matter of enduring importance rather than a casual remark.

“Ah,” he sighed. “I’ve been having trouble with my epiglottis…”

I promise you that’s exactly what the pipsqueak said, and I immediately noticed my relative’s wife Dora chuckling at the bizarre precocity. Any West Cumbrian infant other than William would have lisped, ‘I’ve had a sore fwoat’, but instead the homunculus professor had made his measured utterance. I realise now with a shock that William must be all of 48 in 2018 and it wouldn’t surprise me if he is one the world’s leading throat surgeons who knows more about epiglottises than most.

You get quaintness in grown adults too, and surprises all the way. A couple of years ago I was in correspondence with a very nice Englishwoman in her 60s who kept apologising for her use of multiple exclamation marks. Parenthetically I have only ever known women to use them in the plural, never men, and sincerely I do not deplore or mock the habit as old-fashioned knuckle-rapping schoolteachers might. I honestly think it might be a function of women of any background or station never being listened to enough, whether in a social or professional context, nor credited to have as much wit or sharpness as bumptiously emphatic blokes believe themselves to be in the same milieu. However, that is not the point to this anecdote, for what really surprised me was that in a single email she clearly intended to use the term ‘exclamation marks’ 4 or 5 times, but she didn’t write that at all, for what she wrote instead was ‘explanation marks’. I happened to know she was a graduate with an important managerial job and because she used the wrong term 4 to 5 times it cannot possibly have been a typo. Therefore for 60 odd years this university-educated woman had gone around talking about explanation marks, and hadn’t ever twigged that the proper term actually makes some sense whereas her own version did not. They are called exclamation marks as they follow what is exclaimed, not what is explained or dissected…

At the opposite end from that, is a clever dick writer like me supposedly infinitely sensitive to the nuances of words and the resonances in the silences between words and the echoes of the infinite in terms of unelaborated suggestion (qv the literary credo of Vladimir Nabokov and of Abhinavagupta the ancient Indian writer on poetics). Endowed with all of that, yes, but who nonetheless thinks that certain words make objective sense, when in fact they don’t, or at least only at a secondary and metaphorical level. In this context, I need to quote my West Cumbrian parents, Ian and Mollie Murray, a factory worker and a housewife respectively, both born 1915, both of whom who left school at 14 and had no secondary education to speak of, even though my father was a lifelong reader and autodidact. My parents had colourful words of their own that I never heard anywhere else, but which I presume they had learned at the knee of earlier generations. For example, if they wished to speak disparagingly of something e.g. a TV programme or a celebrated chip shop or a fashionable holiday resort, they would say, ‘it’s nowt patent’ which though I understood the phrase, I only managed to translate into logical sense at the age of about 40. The explanation is that back in their own parents’ time (my grandparents were all born between 1878 and 1885) when poor folk could not afford to see a doctor, the antidote to non-fatal ill health, whether it be anything from constipation to bad nerves to a bad back to flatulence to impotence, were the patent medicines usually in dark bottles that were advertised in the newspaper and the magazines of the day. If something was ‘patent’ it meant in terms of the sufferer’s wishful thinking it was effective and magical and dynamite, and something to put your trust in. Extrapolate that and then patent just becomes a term of approval and its antonym ‘nowt patent’ a dead loss.

Less glamorously we need to turn to the humble and unarguably fundamental (geddit?) backside which my folks also had their own humorous term for and which I have never heard used anywhere else in the anglophone world. Sure enough they regularly talked about the backside, the behind, bottom, arse, bum etc but they also regularly referred to it as ‘The West End’ and assuredly back in the 50s and 60s they weren’t talking about Terence Rattigan dramas or Brian Rix farces in the metropolis. I carried this quaint little posterior navigational compass phrase around in my head for all of 60 odd years, believing it to have some sort of core semantic validity, until only a few days ago in the middle of the night it occurred to me that the expression didn’t make any bloody sense at all…

West End of what?

You can only be called the West End if you are west of something else. Discarding the redundant front view, from the rear view your backside is only west of whatever is to its right, e.g. your wife or your husband or a heaving saloon bar or a vicar or a brace of handsome borzois or a photo of Theresa May colloguing with Boris Johnson, or the Complete Works of William Shakespeare as assembled on a creaking bookshelf. The only way it can make any sense at all, the West End qua the humble behind, is if someone turns to a right-facing profile and assuming they are steatopygic and have a protuberant backside, and the more protuberant the better, it might arguably be their West End…

Personally, as an accurate and homely metaphorical phrase for that which is often deemed mirthful (clowns kick each other up and on the West End) I think that it is Nowt Patent….

ATB!!!

Sorry for all the Exclamation/ Explanation Marks…

And I am not even a woman…

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