David Worboys: It’s the way you say it

Whether serious or in jest, we need to be careful about how we say things. Lady Susan Hussey (left) - Credit CC Ibagli

Prince William´s godmother and “Lady-in-Waiting” to the late Queen was forced to resign after repeatedly asking a Hackney-born woman of African descent, Ngozi Fulani, where she came from. The way she grilled this invitee to a royal reception, demanding to know “where she really came from”, was at best ignorant and at worst racist.

However, if the Queen´s “Waitress” had shown a genuine interest in Fulani´s history, she could simply have asked “In which country did your ancestors live?” – obviously, by leading up to it and not out of the blue. The way we say things is of paramount importance if we don´t wish to be misunderstood or to cause offence.

Often the misuse of words and expressions is downright clumsy.  “Does your wife mind you taking me out for a drink?” she asked. “Not at all. But she probably would if you were more attractive.”

One of my favourite euphemisms was the one used by a barrister acting for a serial Peeping Tom. “My client has an enquiring mind.” This emphasises how the choice of words or phrases can affect the reality of a situation. For example, so many Conservative ministers blindly follow their former dishevelled leader, in saying “I´m very proud of our achievements …”, when their disastrous legacy is there for all to see. Why can´t they say ”I´m ashamed of our record but we´ll try to do better”?

There are several ways of talking down to people. Those with a reasonable academic education may choose to use less common or even obscure alternative words in order to sound “superior”. Frequently, the word selected for effect is less appropriate than the everyday one. Examples are “attenuate” (for diminish or weaken) and “asseverate” (for affirm or confirm).

Those who have read eighteenth-century classic literature may favour quaint expressions such as “forsooth!”. In its extreme, it could produce “Henceforth methinks ´tis perchance a solecism”. Even more pompous are those who introduce Latin phrases into a conversation, no doubt to flaunt their privilege of a public school education. If it´s necessary for them to use phrases such as “ergo” and “per se”, why don´t they try speaking in Italian?

When I was young the interrogative “f**k was taboo in most circles. Even “damn it; I´ve lost the blasted thing” was too blasphemous for many people. In this situation, my father would say “confound it; I´ve lost the blooming thing”.

The irritating words “your call is important to us”  and “we take this matter very seriously” are not just meaningless but extremely tactless in the context of poor service and gross negligence.

Finally, a couple more ripostes. “To be honest with you, I don´t think you are up to it” “Why would you want to be honest?” and  “You have an outdated taste in clothes”. “Your flies are undone”. This latter works wonders – whether true or false.

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David Worboys

Offering a unique insight into everything from politics to food to sport, David is one of the Euro Weekly News´ most popular columnists.