9 March 2023


I was a patient some years ago in a West Country hospital; a nurse with a strong Scottish accent addressed me. I couldn't make out what she was saying, so I smiled broadly and nodded. 

But this was not good enough. 

She repeated her message. It had some of these sounds in it: "w'nid so' o' y'wi". I smiled even more affirmatively. What else could I do?

She went off, looking miffed. A couple of minutes later, another nurse, manifestly armed for combat, came up to my bed. "My colleague tells me that you are refusing to supply a urine sample", she said.

Going back over the Scottish syllables I had been offered, I was able to reconstruct them in my mind as "We need some of your Wee." 

What I had been grappling with was two tough linguistic barriers. (1): A propensity to elide consonants;and (2): In medical English, I now understand, 'urine' is a non-term; 'wee' has supplanted it. (I now also know that another piece of modern professional technical medicalese is 'poo'. Had I then been aware of this, I could have replied to the nurse with a warm and inviting "Poo too?") 

I suspect that a reason for this all-important 'wee' and 'poo' is an underlying convention whereby medical functionaries believe it is important to infantilise patients. The smart way of doing this is perceived to be the imposition of baby-talk as the lingua franca of the ward. When I was again hospitalised during this past twelve-month, one officiant kept addressing me as 'My lovely'. I put up with this for three days; then something snapped within me and I snarled "I am not your lovely and, for that matter, you are not my lovely".

Dialects, dialects. During the Beeb's Thought for the Day not long ago, an 'academic' twice confused the verbs lie and lay

There is a remedy for this. 

If every little boy and girl passing through the English educational system were again to be taught the Attic Greek of the 'Classical' period, before s/he embarked upon Modern English, they would all be well primed in the verb Histemi, which, as you will recall, has some parts transitive and other parts intransitive. 

Then, when these delighful tinies approached the more advanced stumbling-blocks of our current chilly Northern dialect, they would be fore-armed. As well as properly formed in the dialogues of Plato.

Should I patent this as 'Hunwicke's New Elementary Linguistics'?


william arthurs said...

A "poo sample" requested by post becomes "excrement" if, on return, it is redirected to a member of Parliament.

wonastow said...

When I visit the doctor's surgery to provide a blood sample, the phlebotomist warns me that the procedure will involve a "small scratch".

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

Amusingly, and thankfully, this trend is clearly part of the do-gooder public sector, and perhaps peculiar to squeamish protestant Britain.

I have just been restoring an historic roof in France, and the roof-tiler, referring to what we in England might call pigeon sh*t, or droppings, repeatedly refereed to "excrement" blocking the gutters. I was duly impressed with such professionalism!

Arthur H said...

Oh, would that you would, Father! And that every school would take up your good Linguistics course of study. I would love to follow it as well, for my ultimate education... Oremus.

The Ancient Professor said...

My wife did her nursing training at the London hospital. She told me that in London most patients did not know what urine is. So she would first ask for urine. Then after the patient said what’s that she would reply, “I want you to wee in the pot.” The patient would then say , Why didn’t you say so?” I cannot reproduce the Cockney accents.
In the USA, it is usually the word that begins with “p”, which I was taught was vulgar even though everyone else in southwest Virginia used it. My mother would not even use the word urine. She would say could you void in the jar? My dad would say can you make me some water? (Dad was the country MD and mother ran the office.)
What is even more infantile is the tendency of college students who would say “my bad” when they made a mistake. This began 10 or 15 years before I retired.

The Ancient Professor said...

Wiktionary has some usage notes for the transitive verb lay. It concludes by stating that it is remarkable that the separate verbs exist give that for 8 centuries lay has commonly been used intransitively in place of lie in common speech.

FrB. said...

Makes me wonder what the nurse would have understood by "a wee pan".

Pete said...

s/he? what filth is this?

Grant Milburn said...

The confusion between lie and lay drives me crazy. I cringe when I hear people say "I laid on the ground". Or am I just being transitive-phobic? I want to put up a big sign outside my house:


But then one day I would have to concede that popular usage had won (the above pattern being too confusing) and take the sign down. We use stand both transitively and intransitively, so why not lay? Still, no-one seems to have trouble distinguishing raise/rise, set/sit or fell/fall.

Does Modern Greek preserve the Attic distinction between transitive and intransitive stand? My Modern Greek's a bit rusty so I tested with Google Translate.

I stood a lamp on the table.
Státhika mia lámpa sto trapézi.
I stood on the table.
Státhika sto trapézi.

(I realize that GT can be unreliable so I tried translating the same phrases into languages I know better than Modern Greek, such as German.

Ich stellte eine Lampe auf den Tisch.
Ich stand auf dem Tisch.

So GT does know the difference between transitive and intransitive.)

PM said...

Terry Eagleton made a nice observation I'm his 'After Theory' on the proper use of jargon. Most of us don't mind if the doctor asks 'how's the old tummy today?' But if we saw him writing 'old tummy playing up a bit' in his case notes, we should probably begin to worry about his professional competence.

By contrast, the pseudo-jargon of postmodernist 'literary' 'theory' is, to put it mildly, unwarranted.

Zephyrinus said...

Of course, one could not fail to have observed, recently, the explosive increase by “The Beeb” of all, and every, regional accents/dialects within our realms during their programmes and news broadcasts.

Allied, again of course, with a Tsunami of modern-day swear words, bad language, filthy references. When used, for instance in so-called comedy programmes, the whole of the audience (? canned ?) roar with laughter.

One is left to ponder what the aim of all this filth is. One suspects “Building Back”, “Dumbing Down”. and, “Pandering to the lowest common denominator”.

The immediate reaction, naturally, is to either turn the “Wireless” off (never “Radio, please”) or to re-tune to Radio 3.

Banshee said...

"My bad" apparently comes from basketball, and initially meant something like, "That was my bad pass, so missing it was not your fault; and therefore I apologize."

Obviously babies cannot play basketball, so it is not an infantile expression.

Oliver Nicholson said...

"the explosive increase by “The Beeb” of all, and every, regional accents/dialects within our realms during their programmes":
I have never heard a convincing Devonshire accent on the wireless. Even in the Archers, where one might expect it - after all it boasts both a Glaswegian and a Geordie - the allegedly Devonian lecherous cowherd of about ten years ago - he of the plate metre - showed no sign of ever having been within 100 miles of Great Torrington and spoke Estuary English. But then for the BBC "the provinces" always start at Watford and never at Hungerford (except for Cornwall, which is allowed to be chic and Celtic).

messy bessy said...

As an American and avid consumer of interwar British murder mysteries, I have often wondered if (as so often depicted in those books) accent and/or dialect is today a clear delineator of social class in the UK. As in, the accent clearly puts people at an advantage or disadvantage, and that striving for proper speech is still the mark of the social climber.

It does not seem to be here in the midwest United States. Certain accents seem comical to almost everyone else (New York, Alabama) but do not connote low class or poor education, on the whole.