Is Steve there?

I was discussing the use of English today, touching lightly on the devastating potential of the word “actually,” a topic never even mentioned in TEFL course books, which is a surprising omission,  actually. You see what I did there?

Some words and phrases go out of date. Describing something as ‘spruced up’ when you mean making something smarter instantly labels you irredeemably 1950s, but in an odd, other side of the Iron Curtain sort of way, as if you popped round to Kim Philby’s Moscow flat for a chat rather too often. Personally, I think Leslie Phillip’s English is as near the apogee of sophistication as it gets, but I’m old and irritating anyway.

Actually, accent, for some (well, ok, me then) is as important as what’s actually said, actually.  Thinking about it reminded me of a time I was trying to get hold of someone I didn’t know and had never met. I’d just bought something on eBay and was trying to go and collect it from the person at work, but I only had his home number. I rang it. A woman answered, with a kind of voice and accent that wasn’t mine.

I explained I just needed to phone her husband, it turned out, about the thing he’d just sold me. Yes, he’d mentioned it. She didn’t say actually. I sometimes get a bit hazy with names. Especially when I don’t really need to know them or think I don’t, which has the same effect.

He’s at work. Ok, I said, should I call him there? She needed to find his work number.

It’s Steve Nidge.

The woman went off to get the rest of the number.

The English among you, or at least those who have a passing familiarity with Hertfordshire and/or me will know what was going to happen.

So, I said. Do I ask for Steve?


Steve, I said. He’s your husband’s boss, is he? I ask for him and he what, gets him to come to the phone? Ok.

She had no idea what I was talking about.  I had no idea why she had no idea. Our common language had dumped us into a conversational cul-de-sac that neither of us could see any possible way out of.

It’s just one of the things that foreigners find so hard to understand: if you’re English, foreigners are always foreigners. It doesn’t matter if they’re living in their own country as they have for 3,000 years and you just got off the plane there. They are foreign. No English person ever is. But that doesn’t mean we all speak the same language.

Even when we say Of course, there I suppose we’re foreign to them!!’ but it can’t really be said without at least a widening of the eyes and a little jutting of the chin if not a little shriek of laughter to show it couldn’t really be true. Not really. It’s English, you see. It’s how she is spoke. I wrote about it once, myself. It’s as much what isn’t said.

Being English


It was all quite straightforward

We both knew where we were.

We sort of got along, like that.

That way too.

And then suddenly, well – you know.

All sorts of things happened.

And before we knew where we were at all

That was it really.

Now I just look to see if her car’s there.

If you see what I mean.

I’m not sure I did at the time.

Thinking back.

Pity, actually.




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