Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word (To Understand)

05/09/2013 13:59 BST | Updated 05/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Back when "viral" meant infectious and "meme" was a word found only in French dictionaries, one brave soul published an English to American Translation guide "Brit Think, Ameri Think". This was designed to bridge the "two nations divided by a common language" gulf identified (allegedly) by George Bernard Shaw.

It revealed, probably for the first time in book form, the ways in which the British (especially the English and people from Edinburgh) use icy politeness to mask their real feelings about others (especially foreigners), generally insulting them without the recipient catching on - A game played for hundreds of years, which allowed the British to turn most of the map pink, without anyone realising how much their colonisers hated them (at least until Ghandi came on the scene).

Many copies of the book were tracked down by shadowy branches of the British Establishment and pulped, lest the secret slip (although Amazon, it seems, has a stash - Well worth 7 quid).

However, it seems that a Rosetta Stone has found its way onto the Internet, identifying a significant number of our best kept secrets (Telegraph Report here), including my personal favourite "I only have a few minor comments", which means that you have completely rewritten whatever was presented to you. It has swept the world, and I fear the Whitehall Mandarins will have a hard time scrubbing the entire Internet.

I shared the link on Facebook (further exacerbating the problem), and it drew a fair few comments from my American friends, most notably on the use of the word "Sorry". One of my friends has been living in the UK for about 5 years now, and considers herself something of an authority on the subject. To quote: "What about the ubiquitous 'Sorry,' which really means 'Get the f out of my way'?"

I attempted to put her straight, it seems to no avail. The "f" in "Get the f out of my way" is only introduced by adding "very" or "terribly" to the word "sorry". Hence "I am terribly sorry to bother you" means "I don't give a flying whatever that I have woken you up, interrupted your dinner, gatecrashed your wedding".

Conversely "I'm sorry to have bothered you" can sometimes, when the stars are properly aligned, be taken at face value. The worst case scenario is one of mere casual indifference to the bother caused.

It made me realise that it takes a lifetime of immersion in the anally retentive culture of this fair isle to even begin to understand the subtle nuances.

I am no mathematician, but while mulling over how I might explain all of this to someone, I think I stumbled across a direct correlation between what we say, and what we actually mean.

Try this as a scale:

In the middle "I am disappointed" - translation "I am disappointed"

Then slightly to the left, "I am a little disappointed" - translation "I'm pretty pissed off"

Finally, on the far side of the scale, "I am just the tiniest bit disappointed" - This is the same as "You have slain my family in their sleep and danced naked at midnight on their graves"

Flip to the other side: "I am very disappointed" means "Honestly, you could have done better, but try a little harder next time" (Stiff Upper Lip, English Fair Play and all that). My headmaster used to use that a lot, often accompanied by a wink (or a tic - never did work that out).

The occasional exception is the phrase "I am extremely disappointed" which is often reserved for use in letters of complaint where you assume the recipient is in a call centre far, far away, and you genuinely need them to know that you are, in actuality, more than averagely upset.

When you analyse this, you can begin to see a 1/x relationship between the adverb and the meaning we intend to convey. Stick the adverb of your choice in as x, and hey presto the opposite appears.

Don't believe me? Try one of the examples from the list:

"Good" - In British English, is an adjective never used unmodified, but it's a reasonable starting point (Would you say "That's good"? Really? Unless very distracted or heavily medicated?)

"Very Good" can be directly translated to "That is very bad", and is usually directed at children.

"Quite Good", on the other hand, as in "That meal was really quite good", might sound to the outside world like damning with faint praise, but to me, that would be the highest compliment that could be made to me as a chef. Say it to a Yank, though, and you might get a meat cleaver between the eyes.

One of the other things about the list currently circulating is that while it gives a translation of what the non-Brit hears, it does not really explain what the Brit hears.

An example (on the train):

Brit says "Would you like my seat"?

Brit means" I cannot tell if you are fat or pregnant, but I am duty bound to stand out of politeness"

Foreigner hears "You look tired, would you like my seat?"

Brit hears "You look fat, would you like my seat?"

I am going to have to be very, very careful what I say to my Yankee cousins from hereon in. Luckily, there are several thousand replacement phrases, in pre-paid envelopes, waiting to be sprung from an emergency Government bunker. I shall be watching keenly for the postman...