Thursday, 16 December 2010

Words that say something else

Don’t you just love those expressions which mean something quite different from what they seem to suggest?

I’m very fond of ‘I hear what you say.’ That’s right up there with that wonderfully contemptuous phrase, ‘with respect’. It means ‘please believe that I hold you in great esteem, so that I can safely show my utter indifference to the position you’ve just outlined.’ That’s how ‘I hear what you say’ works, too. The message is that I’m aware of your view, but I intend to pay no attention to it whatsoever. ‘I hear, but I’m not listening.’

The same goes for ‘to be perfectly honest.’ You think that’s going to persuade me to trust you? You have to tell me you’re trustworthy? What does that say for the times you were talking me but didn’t assure me of your honesty? Suddenly, you’ve shaken the confidence I was beginning to feel in you.

Actually, that’s just a special case of anyone who has to tell you something good about themselves. I worked once with a colleague who couldn’t hear of anyone doing something well, or even better doing something badly, without telling you about how exceptionally good he was at doing it himself. ‘Back when I was heading that section, I’d get a job like that finished with two other smart guys in three weeks. Now we have a team of five and they can’t do it in six months.’

Note the word ‘other’ in ‘two other smart guys’. That's in case it hadn’t struck you how smart he was. Edward Guggenheim, regarded by many as the father of chemical thermodynamics, once started a lecturer with the words ‘there are only five eminent thermodynamicists in the world today’ and then named four. At least he was seriously smart, and had the evidence in a string of books to prove it.

Someone who has to tell you they’re smart is saying something else, isn’t he? ‘You may not have spotted how terribly good my work is, probably because there's not much evidence of the fact, so let me assure you that I'm really quite exceptional.’

Not to be taken at face value, these little tricks of language. But gems to be treasured for their own sake nonetheless.

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