No offence, but I’m going to offend you

The English language is a strange and exciting creation and all I can say is that I am so glad I am a native speaker. With the variety of Latinate, French, Old English and Norse origin words and rules that apply to some words but not to most others, it’s a shock anybody can learn English fluently as a second, third or fourth language.

Vignoni via Wikimedia Commons

English is full of tricks that, when you think about it, shows us that we’re actually really intelligent, and the whole communication thing we do is pretty darn clever. How is it, for example, that we calmly comprehend that our noses run and our feet smell? Or that quicksand actually works pretty slowly? How and why can we accept that slim chances and fat chances are the same thing, whereas a wise guy and a wise man are polar opposites?

I was having a conversation with somebody very recently and she started off a sentence with “no offence, but…”, and it got me thinking. Who decided that that blatantly contradictory phrase with the use of the word “but” gives us permission to then, well, offend someone? It’s the same with the phrase “she’s lovely, but…”. It’s like we’re trying to cover our backs, trying to convince the listener that although we’re about to be pretty rude about someone, we’re actually a really nice person and mean no harm. “I don’t mean to brag, but…”, “sorry, but…”, “I don’t mind, but…”. It’s like we’ve been socially conditioned to believe that as soon as you say the contradictory phrase of your choice, you are then free to say whatever the heck you like with no repercussions. You can offend, be rude, slander whoever and whatever you like until your heart’s content because, well, you’ve already apologised. Well that’s alright then, isn’t it? It seems a strange yet much conventionalised feature of our language and it’s just one example of the curiosities of the English language.

Along with these hidden meanings of English, there is the silent “k” at the start of knife; the fact there is no ham in a hamburger and no egg in an eggplant; the way bough, through and tough are all pronounced different ways and the way we play at a recital but recite at a play all just add to the confusing yet wonderfully mutually comprehensible language that is English.

With all these contradictions and rules that make no logical sense, it’s amazing that anybody can understand anything. English is ever evolving and adapting to adopt new slang words and new technological terms and it’s often very difficult to keep up. For the most part, however, although the new vocabulary may sometimes pass us by, we can understand the rest of the language. So, what I’m trying to say is, I don’t mean to brag, but we’re pretty flamin’ smart.


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