I begin with an exchange I had this morning walking my dog, to demonstrate the importance of language and to frame the subject of this blog.
Tess (my dog) and I are in the park. It is baking hot and neither of us are very comfortable. A lady approaches me in a very flustered state and I am curious and happy to assist with whatever she needs.
‘Excuse me, but can I borrow a pooh bag?’ She asks.
The obvious solution here is to oblige and to ignore the incorrect use of the verb, borrow and of course, this is what happened. I duly handed over a bag and with a smile. We’ve all been there, right?
But you see my point?
Because the verb, ‘to borrow’ means that something will be used and then returned.
People borrow things like pens. Lawn mowers on occasion or a leaf blower…
But never a pooh bag.
No one borrows a pooh bag. I handed over a pooh bag and I was not expecting it back. Indeed, if the lady had tried to return it to me, I would have refused.
Because I did not lend her the bag. I gave her the bag.
And so her question should have been…
Could I have a pooh bag, please?
But I guess borrowing feels a little kinder and is less of an ask. A little softer, which I guess for a pooh bag, is appropriate?
Many of my readers are American and as welcome as they are to my various sites, I qualify this welcome by stating that ‘Americanisms’ blight the beautiful thing that is the English language. .
“Can I get…” is particularly egregious and grates on me because all of my boys use it.
Most typically, in a bar, or a restaurant…
‘Yeah, can I get a beer?’ ‘Can I get a tuna melt…’
No, you can’t.
You can have a beer. Or a sandwich.
But you can’t get it, yourself.
Because it is my job to get you your beer. Or your sandwich. This is not self-service establishment. It is my job to serve you. So you can have a beer. But I will get it for you.
You see my point now?
It’s all about rigour and using things correctly and this includes language.
This is down to culture of course; trends and fashions and trying to sound cool. But it is also down to education, which is a hot topic this week.
I write this on the day that A levels results are announced in the UK which is the barometer of education standards and attainment in our country. Always a difficult day for me because with grade inflation (or cleverer students?), it means that with every passing year, I become comparatively more stupid and less well qualified.
And even more controversial this year since no students have actually sat any exams due to lockdown – which might mean that our newspapers carry less photos of students looking gleeful and bound for university.
Looking gleeful very much depends on what course and at what university. Stem subjects, engineering, medicine, maths… but most of the arts degrees these days and certainly any degree with ‘studies’ in the title, is probably best avoided.
Getting to university used to be an achievement in itself. But not any longer.
None of my boys so far have gone to university and I am quietly hoping that Paddy swerves it too. I have two university degrees myself, both of which were uninspiring and never needed, until now perhaps, since my chosen profession is illegal for the time-being and no one is keen to predict when comedy clubs are allowed to fill up again.
Not that I am eschewing education; just that I believe that my most valuable educators have been my parents. And that whatever successes I have enjoyed in life is on them more than any exams I managed to pass.
Candidates for this years A levels (17 and 18 year olds) and GCSE’s (16 year olds) are being given grades on a number of criteria including in some instances how the students fared in their mock examinations.
Which brings me to an indelible memory of mine…
At school I was not academic but I worked hard and did my best. My best subject was not easy to discern but it was certainly not maths, or math for the Americans (which grates also, because surely in the US, students do more than one mathematical sum and so it should be plural – so maths and not math) nor any of the sciences.
At school, I was interested by science, but I had no affinity for it and especially not Chemistry: a subject that combined science with algebra and completely confounded me.
For our mock O level Chemistry exam (now GCSE), our teacher, a priest called Father Lawrence somehow thought it was a good idea to give us all his exam paper in advance.
Hard working and diligent, I got to work preparing – and was duly awarded 96%.
That is 96 out of a 100 BTW.
First in class and bizarrely, Father Lawrence heralded my scientific brilliance. I was predicted a grade A in the forthcoming exam.
An exam paper that I did not see in advance – and the crucial difference it transpired – managing only a grade E – the same grade I managed for English at my first attempt.
But unlike English, I did not attempt Chemistry again deciding to move on and leave science to the kids who I admired but had little in common with.
But I wonder now if this was not a mistake on my part. Because what might have been.
Like the Covid students of the UK – being assessed and awarded on the outcome of their mocks…
Can you now see the opportunity that I gave up?
I have written to the Examinations Board of the UK – demanding that my 1983 mock GCSE chemistry result should be formally recognised - and furthermore that my grade E is expunged.
And because my career as a comedian might never recover from Covid, I have decided to take my chemistry brilliance to retrain...
To become a doctor, no less.
And finally, I wonder if there are some dog owners reading this piece who are still wondering what a pooh bag is?
I hope not and I suspect not. My readers are far too classy and responsible to leave their dog mess for other people to stand in or clear up.
My readers are good people.
Dare I say it, but to borrow another Americanism…
My readers, rock.