22 OCTOBER 1937, Page 12



THEREare to my mind few: pastimes more fascinating than to observe the divergence between the words which we use in our everyday speech and what we mean by them. The British are universally known to be stolid, steady, tminiaginative, and very stiff about the uppers lip ;;yet inthe course of a single day I have heard a Briton (without, as he would say, moving a muscle) proclaim himself to be fit aa. fiddle, proud as a peacock, right as a trivet, fresh as paint, gay as a lark, frozen stiff, and dying to see one of.his friendi. Ask him why exactly he felt himself to resemble a fiddle, a . . .

peacock, a trivet, a lark, and so forth, and he would instantly ' deny that he had ever seen any resemblanee whatsoever, and dimly suspect one Of laughing at him (no, sorry, milling hiS leg). - But add to hini'and his like that galax3i Of one's associates who are severally braire' as a lion; pretty as a picture bold is brass; blind as a bat, deaf as'a Poit, light as a feather, right aS rain, and dead as a doornail : who have their nose put but of joint, their leg pulled, and are growing too big fortheir boots survey the scene which they' thus so casually conjure up, and it is hard to resist a sudden fleeting hope that the everyday world may not be so drab and licking in colour as it looks during our first taste of autumn fogs. • These trivets and doornails and bats, these feathers and fiddles, pass for the most pair abiolutely unnoticed by sPeakei and hearers alike,. and we mils a great deal of quiet fun by omitting to listen to the absurdities of our daily Conversation. But what we wasteinunnoticed overstatement in one way we make up for by the most adMirable .caution elsewhere. The Englishman may mean much less than he says in his figures of speech, but at other times how very, very much less he can say than he means you to understand. If it be true (and who would dare to deny it ?) that mankind resorts to platitudes in its -mon:tents of deepest, emotion, it seems very possible that the Englishman spends his daily life in a state of emotion hitherto. totally unsuspected. "And not only the Englishman; but * the English' Woinan, and all who regard small talk as an integral part of their everyday affairs.

Take lifts, for exam' k. A self-respecting and supposedly truthful Englishman will go down in a lift with one acquain-7 tance agreeing cordially that the weather is cold for the time of year, and come up in the same lift twenty minutes later heartily corroborating the view of another acquaintance that it is unpleasantly muggy. Yet he' is neither hypocrite nor fool ; the .explanation is simply that, whatever_ the words he is using, he is not in reality discussing. the weather at all. 1 English discussion of the weather is an elaborate, almost ritual game under cover of which . are expounded matters vastly more important. An Englishman who says it is a fine day will ten to one mean nothing of the. sort. He means, according to the tones of his voice, either, " I should so much like to know you better," or " I have not the slightest wish to know you, but I suppose I must make some indication that I realise you are there." And, the replies, of course, are no less varied, ranging from the cold, Unencouraging . courtesy of " Yes, very," to the warmth of " Yes, wonderful, isn't it !" which, roughly translated, means, " I heartily, agree with you—in. fact I think I should agree with everything you said, if only we had the chance to know each other better." Weather, indeed !

To put the whole matter in a nutshell, when we say one thing we almost invariably mean something else, and a large proportion of our profounder conversation is camouflaged as something. totally different. In fact, .as the parodist so abiy improved upon toniswortli by, saying,. Two voices are there : one is of the deep. . . And one is of an old, half-witted sheep.. . . ." Foreign visitors,. heating only the sheep, can never fully appreciate how right- they. are when they. say (as they always do) that they cannot imagine what we should do without-.our Weather to talk about.