Mustn’t grumble

1950s cabbie

[M]ustn’t grumble, which of course is what we Londoners are always doing – roadworks, litter, Boris – you name it we can moan for England. While maintaining an air of cheerful, if somewhat deferential, stoicism we go through life apologizing while at the same time keeping a stiff upper lip.

This air of permanent regret can seem bewildering and perverse to tourists. We apologize when bumping into you “Sorry old chap, didn’t see you there”. When you bump into us “So sorry” meaning do that again at your peril.

When we hold open a door for another with the greeting “Don’t mention it” which of course is shorthand for “Please continue to thank me”.

When we might seem to be having a perfectly amiable conversation while in fact disagreeing with every word you have uttered the appropriate interjection is “I’m not being funny, but . . . ” which is a prelude to a socially unacceptable remark.

Punctuality was once the trademark of an Englishman, but with transport in London slowly grinding to a halt you are more likely to get the apology “I’m running 10 minutes late . . .” roughly translated this means “Boris hasn’t fixed the delays yet and I will be there anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour after we agreed to meet”.

And watch out if at a social gathering you hear “I have half a mind to say something . . . ” that indicates

“I am adding to years’ worth of unspoken resentment that you can silence with a very dry white wine”.

Sorry doesn’t seem to be the hardest word as Elton John opined: When we walk into doors, when dropping anything, when we want to butt into a conversation, when flustered or when brushing past you in a pub, when we cannot hear or when hearing all too well as a reflex “Sorry” suffices for what we cannot think of what else to say.

But by no means does saying “sorry” mean the speaker is in fact, well, sorry.

“Probably my fault . . . ” is about as deferential as we get. Take that to mean “This is your fault.”

Frequent apology is one of an arsenal of clever tricks Londoners employ to obscure their true feelings. If the words “Mustn’t complain . . . ” are directed at you take notice, their true meaning is “I have just complained and if you don’t sort it out I will take the matter further”.

Eastenders greet one another with “Alright?” don’t enter into a conversation about your woes, it’s the law of the jungle to show that you are one of them and a friend.

And London cabbies are not immune to this verbal gymnastics, our greeting to another cab driver of “Be Lucky” roughly translates to “I hope you don’t get a job before me”.

2 thoughts on “Mustn’t grumble”

  1. These examples illustrate the fact that in speech we communicate on several levels at the same time and that anyone who takes spoken remarks literally will miss a lot of what is going on. Writing does not adequately reflect speech. Speech does not consist solely of words: it includes tone of voice, facial expression, body language and extra-lingual clues such as grunts, slurs, changes in pitch and so on. This is why a novelist, for example, has to be skilful in composing dialogue because he has only a single dimension (the words alone) to use when speech is multidimensional.
     
    We notoriously do not “say what we mean”, much less “mean what we say”. How often, for example, do you hear a parent say to a child “Do that again and I’ll kill you”? Yet the incidence if child murder remains low.
     
    Some of your examples concern what might be called “speech rituals” in which the exchanges are fixed and are not intended to carry information. A typical one is the meeting ritual which goes something like this: “Hello, how’s you?” “Fine, thanks. And you?” “Yep, great.” This exchange is clearly not intended to elicit details of possible illness nor is such information expected. It is simply an acknowledgement of one another’s presence and a relationship between them. The French often replace this verbal exchange with a quick handshake.
     
    We very often say the opposite of what we mean as when rivals greet one another with the expression “Nice to see you” when they in fact wish one another dead. The important point about this is that both understand the true meaning of the words and that the remark is more charged with subtle meaning than a blunt “I hate the sight of you”.

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