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.


Terms of endearment

I am fascinated by terms of endearment, how they vary, how frequently they are used,  and how they are perceived in social contexts. When I was a child my father used to call me Dook. In my five year old mind I saw this written as D-O-O-K  (to rhyme with  hook),  but later realised it was actually D-U-C-K,  said in a Midlands accent which he had acquired working in Crewe when it was an important railway hub in the 1950s. Welsh mothers of a certain generation often used to call their male sons ‘Boy’ and this could persist until the boys were well into their sixties and seventies and begged them to stop.

In service encounters such terms can proliferate (but not in Waitrose!) and in Wales I have been called ‘love’, ‘lovely’, ‘flower’, ‘chick’, among others. London cabbies of the old fashioned kind still refer to all women under 90 as ‘Girl’. I vividly remember my Welsh driving instructor comforting me after I had failed my test for the second time “don’t worry, Flower, if you knew how many grown rugby players I’ve had crying in my car like you ” And surely part of the appeal of Motown songs was the liberal use of ‘Baby’ and ‘Sugar’. Such terms fell out of favour as politically correct sensibilities heightened during the 90s, but fortunately  they have always been accepted in the heartlands.

When I came to New York I became aware I had to be careful with my language choices. For example, I was mildly chastised by a male colleague for a quip I made about Man Flu. What I had thought was a healthy irreverence for the opposite sex acquired after years of living in a household with three men turned out to be potential grounds for a micro-aggression workshop. But strangely enough, a wide range of address terms seem to be used without any fear of litigation. In my disoriented first days here I felt very comforted by the female canteen staff and coffee cart guys calling me ‘Sweetie.’ The Greek lady with the peaked cap in Tom’s diner soothes me through my breakfast with ‘Darlink’. And there is one assistant at the college Starbucks who laces each encounter with endearments and changes them for each customer. That’s what I call service.

In the student residence I represent a bit of a New Yorkersociolinguistic challenge for the security and facilities staff because of my non traditional age, which seems to invoke some kind of polite address. Consequently I am called Miss or Ma’am, and my favourite facilities guy regularly chirps me up with his “Happy Friday , Miss Morgan!”.

I remember a line in the TV series the West Wing.  CJ, the  female press officer, reprimanded an aide : ‘Will you please stop calling me Ma’am? We’re not making a  western here.”  Me? Please call me Ma’am till the cows come home.

New York

Semester two

Some people have signature phrases or words they tend to use, consciously or unconsciously. I remember from my childhood a local dignitary who was a frequent speaker at school events. He liberally sprinkled his speeches with the phrase “and if I may say so’, and all us kids would have fun counting how many times it occurred.
I have a few hallmark phrases myself; one of them is that pseudo-sporting metaphor ‘hit the ground running’. What started off as ironic usage has now unfortunately become part of my idiolect. But that’s exactly what life has been like the last few weeks, with the impenetrable red tape of starting a new semester, and getting back up to the world speed at which everything happens round here. During the same period Mike and Lilli came to visit so I had to prise myself out of my comfort zone – the square mile around the university – and go downtown, because that’s where people want to be. I have been a reluctant tourist so far, but, in my defence, study commitments don’t leave much time for that sort of thing. I am realising gradually that I will have to wait for visitors with a highly organised sightseeing schedule and explore the city with them.
In order to qualify for my international student visa I have to enrol in four classes a semester, which is a lot of reading and writing. This term one of my classes is Conversation Analysis, which studies how talk is structured into turns and sequences, and how speakers ‘get things done’. This involves a forensic analysis and transcription of people’s utterances, where we have to mark pitch change, micro pauses and something called ‘rush ons’. For a top-down person like me this attention to minute detail is challenging, and my first transcription was completed (semi-satisfactorily) only after a good deal of blood, sweat, and tears. But the classCA pic is conceptually very interesting and yesterday at the Nail Spa I found myself eavesdropping on two blokes having a pedicure (this is New York) and wishing I could record the conversation.