‘Ours is a precarious language, as every writer knows, in which the merest shadow of a line often separates affirmations from negation, sense from nonsense, and one sex from another.’
James Thurber, 1961
Ah yes fellow men, read that last bit again. Separates ‘one sex from another’ indeed. It is certainly a very dangerous thing to use language in the vicinity of females. He who dares often ends up in the doghouse. Who knows what hell can break loose at the most innocuous utterance? I’m sure we’ve all felt the wrath of using the wrong adjective to describe something – or was our adjective misconstrued?
I definitely have a favourite bit of precarious language. I’m sure all you males will be familiar with this. It involves the paying of compliments and often goes something like this. The male starts:
‘I like you’re new hairstyle!’ (In this case let’s imagine that she now has a fringe.)
‘Oh really?’ Cue a steely gaze in your direction.
‘Yeah, it really suits you.’
‘Oh, so you didn’t like my hair before?’
‘No, no, no … it was fine before but this new style really frames your face well.’
‘It was “fine” before, was it? So you didn’t like my face before either?
‘No, I mean …’
But it’s too late now. Good luck explaining yourself. You resort to spluttering more words that just come out as platitudes. The face you’re talking to darkens even more. You’ve said it now and there’s no taking those words back. Into the doghouse you go. Ah yes, the precariousness of a compliment. And take care with the word ‘fine’. For some it’s basically an insult.
Language: what a blunt instrument it is with which to communicate. Those implications of what wasn’t said in that innocent, supposedly flattering statement can be vast. Oh dear, the gulf in meaning between what we say and what we mean. I recall a conversation with a certain special someone before embarking on a trip to France (I paraphrase):
‘So I’ll be travelling most of tomorrow so probably won’t manage to call you tomorrow [Saturday] but maybe Sunday.’
My golly gosh – only later was I to find out the rage that the word ‘maybe’ inspired. ‘But Sweetest!’ I implore, ‘I totally meant I’d call you on Sunday. ‘Oh really’, she replies in a disbelieving tone; and I believe that if she had been born with that wonderful ability to raise one eyebrow she would have done so at that moment. ‘Yes’, I reply, my voice taking on the whining quality of a child who really wants something. Honestly, even though I said ‘maybe’ I truly meant ‘definitely’. (As it happens I had called on Sunday but hadn’t got through.)
That ‘merest shadow line’ was actually in my head as much as it was in the piece of language. Is it just the way I use the language? Really, how on earth is this ridiculousness possible? ‘It’s not you, it’s me’, as the saying goes. I suppose the point is that the precariousness of language exists in the interpretation of the words, the tone and accompanying body movements.
Maybe another time we can discuss some of the precarious language that females use.
9 September 2010