Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Say what you mean

Today's (London) Times provides a useful example of how a statement can mean something quite other than what it appears to mean.

A headline reads as follows:
Train graffiti paedophile gang are jailed for life
OK so far? Right. The report then goes on to say this:
Three paedophiles who were caught after a journalist replied to an obscene advert on a train lavatory door were jailed for life yesterday.
Right... Now then. You've read it, and you understand it. But hold. Lower down we get this:
Trevor Haddock, 55, the ringleader, who has been sexually abusing children for at least 20 years, will not be eligible for parole for at least 12 years. Ian Jones, 43, and Derek Moody, 44, were also given life sentences and will serve at least ten and four years respectively.
So. It seems that, in England, 'jailed for life' doesn't mean what it appears to mean. It means that you could be back on the streets in four years.

Please note that I make no comment here on the rights and wrongs of the case. I am simply commenting on the terminology involved.

Of course, as far as UK readers are concerned, there is nothing remotely new about hearing that a life sentence actually means a limited term. We're well used to that.

We're also used to that fact that, particularly in England, you always have to decode what people say to you. A senior civil servant once said to me: 'You have to remember that I come from a culture in which to say "I'm afraid I can't quite agree with you on that" means "I shall fight to the death to prevent you achieving your aims".'

And, I believe, the same is true of some other cultures. A friend of mine was trying to do business in Japan, and was really very encouraged by what his Japanese counterparts were saying to him. At least he was until a more experienced hand took him on one said and said, 'That means No.'

All of that having been said, it seems that there are some circumstances in which the Brits are, at last, beginning to feel it necessary to speak in plain English. Elsewhere in the Times this morning, we have an article by Alice Miles headed 'The madness of King Tony'.

In the course of this article, Ms Miles says:
I am a latecomer to the 'Blair is mad' theory, but I am beginning to see what it’s all about.... The Prime Minister sounds barking mad.... The Prime Minister has gone quite mad.'
Is that plain enough for you?


Suman said...

Yea you are right. The twisting and turning of English, specially making it divert into the bylanes of the language, is surely a great problem for the non-native speakers and learners of English.
You perhaps know that India was a colony of Britain for long two hundrend years. We could not yet get over the colonial hangover. Thus here also life imprisonment means imprisonment for a limited period, say 15 years.

Anonymous said...

And then there is "United Nations-speak." They seem to mean what they say, but you are never sure if they say what they mean.