Many readers will be familiar with George Bernard Shaw’s quip that “we really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language”. And we can all cite examples of words and expressions that mean different things to, say, a New Yorker and a resident of Birmingham (that is the city in England, not Alabama).
The problem is compounded by the ugly, boorish impact of business speak (mostly the fault of Americans but, going forward, I will not belabour the point).
A tannoy message this afternoon in the Church and Market branch of Safeway in San Francisco trumped them all:
Guest Attention in the Liquor Display Case
Immediately this raised a number of questions in my mind.
For starters, when did we start calling customers buying their groceries “guests”, unless the poor subject of the announcement was one of the gentlemen of the street that haunt the vicinity, who saw the premises, specifically the “liquor display case”, as a potential resting place for the night – a case of “killing two birds with one stone” if ever I heard one?
And I know everything in America is meant to be bigger, but how large must this “case” be if a “guest” has, deliberately or otherwise, found themselves inhabiting it, unless they have ejected its intended contents first? And that’s not going to happen is it?
But what if the individual is an unsuspecting shopper of smaller than average stature who has inadvertently got trapped in the case whilst trying to reach the Southern Comfort bottle on the top shelf? Will this not render Safeway liable for huge compensation payouts under equality legislation?
And come to think of it – how many of those words that I have used above, for example “quip”, “tannoy” and “trumped”, would be readily understood by my American friends?
Or perhaps none.
I just don’t know – unless they tell me of course.
We both trot out our own everyday expressions in conversation with each other without a thought (and why should we?) of whether we are going to be understood. This is more of an issue for my compatriots because we naturally assume that residents of other nations should be conversant with our god-given language.
But in the final analysis I just hope that that poor “guest” – bum, dwarf or whatever he or she might be – has been rescued by now. If not, they’re likely to be approaching severe frostbite.