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Pertie and the pot

Have you considered how the way one speaks can change the content of what one’s trying to say? Karan Thapar examines.

columns Updated: Aug 02, 2009 00:20 IST

‘You’ve been wittering on about Lewis Caroll but do you know his real name?’ It was an odd question for Pertie to ask. More than that, I found it hard to believe he knew and I didn’t. Fortunately, before I could admit to the fact he blurted out the answer.

“It’s Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He frenchified the Charles to Caroll and anglicised the Lutwidge to Lewis and then reversed the names. But even better is the story about Queen Victoria and Lewis Caroll’s books. Do you know it?” This time I didn’t hesitate to say no. Pertie’s wealth of information had me flabbergasted.

“She fell in love with Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and ordered every single book written by the author. But what she didn’t know is that he was a mathematics professor at Oxford. To her horror she ended up with a pile of books on mathematical conundrums. The poor woman wasn’t amused!”

Believe it or not, this was Pertie’s beguiling way of starting a conversation about last week’s column. Having eased himself into it, he came to the point. “You wrote about Humpty Dumpty and the different meaning of words. But have you considered how the way one speaks can change the content of what one’s trying to say? It’s another reason why people often misunderstand each other.”

“Give me an example,” I replied. Pertie seemed to be full of surprises and rather learned ones at that.

“I remember the first time I watched TV news in Nigeria. ‘Good evening’, the anchor began. ‘The time is nine o’clock Greenwich’ and then he paused. ‘Meantime here is the news’.”

“Your are making it up.” The story was simply too good to be true.

“Of course not,” he shot back. “This sort of thing happens frequently. There’s the famous bloomer during an England-West Indies Test match. In his excitement the commentator said, without a pause, ‘The batsman’s holding the bowler’s willie’. Every word was right but it wasn’t what he meant to say!”

“Ms Thatcher did that once, too, you know.” A long forgotten memory had suddenly flashed back.

And this time it was my turn to stump Pertie. He cocked an eyebrow in evident disbelief but kept quiet.

“Do you remember when she first became PM? She had a deputy called Willie Whitelaw. And whenever she got into trouble old Whitelaw would salvage the situation. So when he retired someone asked he if she would miss him. ‘Yes’, she replied, ‘Every woman needs a Willie’.”

Pertie laughed but only fleetingly. Suddenly a look of mischief crept into his eyes and a strange all-knowing smirk covered his face. “Do you realise how often television anchors make this sort of mistake?”

“It’s your Humpty Dumpty moment,” he continued before I could answer. “You guys may not use words to mean whatever you choose but you can certainly mangle the meaning by the way you say them. Have you noticed how you fail to distinguish between rebel [verb] and rebel [noun] or mispronounce gorilla for guerrilla?”

I began to feel I’d walked into a trap. Was this the real point he wanted to make? He’d gone about it so strategically I didn’t realise where we were heading. “What exactly are you saying?” I asked nervously.

“Just this: your criticism of the PM is like the pot calling the kettle black!”