Learning a language is not just about the vocabulary and grammar, the tenses and idioms, it’s about the people and how they use that language. Culture, jokes, personality traits and foibles are the underlying bedrock to language. Getting to grips with past and future tenses is just the equivalent of getting your boots on when climbing the Eiger. After living for 7 years in a foreign country my boots are on but I’m just strugging into my fleece and packing my first-aid kit! Learning English is no different and here I’m going to try to unwrap one of those British traits for you, the art of understatement.
I’m saying ‘British’ here rather than ‘English’ as it applies to all the countries of Britain, it’s not uniquely English. It’s history lies probably somewhere centuries ago when it was not the done thing to express emotion in public, remember we are a melting pot of mainly northern tribes mixed with celts, we are not latin, we come from solid peoples inhabiting cold places. Along the way we developed a strong sense of ‘fair play’ but also had to go through the bizarre restraints of Victorian times where polite society forbade exuberant expressions of feelings at all, a time when ‘The stiff upper lip’ made an appearance, meaning the reluctance to change facial expression when faced with disaster, danger or calamity. Till we arrive at the here and now, an ancient mix of cold climate blood, warriors and barbarians with some very incongruous rules! A bit like watching a T-Rex eating with a knife and fork apologising for inconveniencing everyone. We are often uncomfortable in our own skins, we apologise a lot for, well, a lot of things! And we use a particular brand of humour to hide awkwardness or disaster. The art of understatement.
In it’s simplest form we underplay everything, the classic examples are always in hospital. I worked in hospital for over 20 years so am fairly well versed in most of them! If someone is seriously ill they are ‘poorly’, now this is a word we use for children when they have a cold. If some one is unlikely to survive the night they are ‘very poorly’! If something is going to be very painful the doctor will say ‘This might sting a bit’. The word ‘sting’ we use when we touch nettles. If something is very VERY painful they will say ‘Yes, that smarts a bit’ or ‘it’s a wee bit sore’! Smart is the feeling you have when you have been smacked!
In English we save extreme words for, well….I’m not too sure when! An Englishman furious to apoplectic levels will say he is ‘more than a little cross, and frankly quite put out by the whole business’!! Do NOT be fooled into thinking ‘well that’s ok then, not too mad’! Neither do we use exotic, foreign (often beautiful!) words for an ordinary conversation, we would run the risk of sounding melodramatic, or even worse, pretentious. My abiding memory of growing up was ‘don’t make a fuss’!! And I hear myself repeat this again with my own son, when he comes in with a scrape to the elbow telling me it’s ‘agony’, the first thing I find myself doing is correcting the language! ‘Well no, it’s not it’s not agony is it, bit sore maybe! We are not unsympathetic, we just have a strong aversion to melodrama and extremes! For me this was born out in the pharmacy queues of France which, even now, never cease to amaze and baffle me. When I first arrived I was utterly shocked by the language used for seemingly ordinary illnesses or bugs I assumed everyone was at deaths door or closer. The amount of concentration, attention and medication devoted to what I later discovered were mildly sniffly complaints! To a Briton heading into a chemist some questions are asked first, ‘Are you going to pass out? Do you have severe pain? Are you still bleeding? Are you unable to walk? Have you been vomiting for more that 24 hours?’ If the answer the these is ‘no’, ‘OK, good, not too bad then’! Slight exageration maybe but not far off the mark!
This drifts into comedy where the underplaying of simply catastrophic events by the Englishman becomes something to find funny…..and weirdly we do!! We can chuckle quietly for hours over a particularly good example!!
So, you may wonder, when do we use these extreme words, in what situations or settings? Well, extreme anger or extreme sarcasm, very tricky for the non-national to know the difference!
And one other thing, because we tend not to over-use dramatic words does not mean we have a dry or limited vocabulary. Far from it. We have a wealth of beautiful words and expressions, prosaic literature, we just Tend to keep the tempo down, we’re British after all!
The classic ‘Black Knight’ scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail is a good example of British Understatement!
King Arthur hacks off the Black Knights arm, to which he responds, “Tis but a scratch!”
The battle continues with King Arthur cutting off the second arm. “Just a flesh wound” says the Black Knight.
Finally with both legs and both arms severed the Black Knight concedes that victory is out of his grasp. “Alright, we’ll call it a draw then”.
It was common during the WWII bombing of London for a store which had been partially damaged – say, the roof blown off and maybe a missing wall – to remain in business with the sign…
“More open than usual”.
Captain Lawrence Oates (1912 Expedition to be the first to the South Pole.) – “I’m just going outside and may be some time”. When realising his injuries were threatening his comrades chances of escape, he removed himself from the equation, (walked out into the blizzard knowing he wouldn’t return).
I’ve heard a comedian once being grateful that Apollo 13 was not set in the UK. It would’t have been “Houston, we have a problem”, but “Hello Milton Keynes, we’re in a bit of a pickle here”.
“A bit of a do” could describe anything from The Second World War to a lively debate about nothing, ie a petty squabble or tiff.
“I bet he doesn’t shop at Aldi” is an exclamation in respect of a rich persons display of weath as he pulls up to your Ford Fiesta in a shiny new Jaguar.
“Mustn’t grumble”, “fine and dandy” and “worse things happen at sea” are commonly used in reference to ones state of health after a dire personal disaster, be it bankruptcy, reduced life expectancy or the death of a key family member.
Foibles: Personality traits that cause problems!
Not the done thing: Old fashioned phrase for something that is rude or impolite. Not far off the mark!: Probably true.