English Translation of English

Dorothy Cannell: I was talking with a friend (aka husband) recently and we agreed that the words he or she ‘meant well’ have to be amongst the most damning in the English language. Conclusion: Outcome may range between disappointing and disastrous, but is never good.

Example: John is a romantic; he meant well. Possible response:

‘Yes, I don’t doubt John thought he was being a pal inviting Mary Smith and her ex-husband to the dinner party in hope of bringing about a reconciliation, but we’re still looking at a body with a steak knife sticking out of its back.”

And while on the subject of red flag-waving assertions, my friend and I considered the phrase: “To be completely frank with you …”

Why the need to assert honesty with adverb to boot? Could suggest to the suspicious that this hasn’t always been the case or even (to a nasty-minded person) that the speaker is fibbing now.

This vein of thought reminded me that one of the things likely to make dialogue come alive for me on the page is the suggestion that a character’s words can’t be taken at face value, thereby allowing for probing of his or her personality and that of others participating in the conversation. Denials are often promising.

Example: A Woman invited to have another piece of cake. Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 4.04.37 PM

“I really mustn’t be greedy!”

Possible interpretation: She’s dying for a really big slice.

Possible kindly response from other character: “Are you sure? It would be a pity to let it go stale.”

Or, nastily: “Very sensible. We can all do with losing a little weight if we are to make any attempt at looking our best.”

 The more vehement the denial the more grist for the poking.

Example: Person asked about his (her) reaction to coming into a large inheritance.

“It’d never crossed my mind, not once in twenty years of doing Uncle Henry’s shopping and cooking his dinner three or four times a week, that he’d leave me his house and all that money. You could’ve knocked me down with a feather when the solicitor read out the will.”

Possible interpretation: Had been counting down the minutes until the old boy kicked the bucket.

Possible kindly response: “I’m sure it didn’t. No one could ever think you grasping.”

Or nastily: “Pull the other leg. It’s got bells on.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 4.03.20 PM Here’s another potential denial gem: Woman asked she thinks of the vicar’s recently announced engagement to the visiting nurse.

“I have absolutely nothing to say on the matter!”

Possible interpretation: Bursting at the seams to have her say into the middle of the next week.

Kindly response: “I shouldn’t have brought up the matter, not with you being his housekeeper.”

Or nastily: “Really? Who could blame you for feeling murderous after years of slavishly going above and aboard the job description? Oh, yes! Poor fool, you! What a shame you’re not a rich blonde with a bishop for an uncle!”

It’s wonderful when one small remark kicks the dialogue forward and in doing so propels the plot – possibly in a previously unforeseen direction. Which reminds me, I should get back to book in progress. But in ending I would like to add one final thought: To be absolutely frank I have never had the smallest desire to be Number One on the New York Times best seller list, win a Pulitzer or get a three million dollar advance.

Best wishes,


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8 Responses to English Translation of English

  1. Tina says:

    And then there’s, “Bless her heart!”

    • Amber Foxx says:

      Yes, the Southern “bless your heart, ” or even stronger, “bless his poor little heart.” It’s so hard to translate the vinegar behind that sugar, but it does deliver a punch.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Love this, Dorothy!

  3. Dorothy says:

    Thank you Tina and Amber. The ‘bless your heart’ pearl is high on my list!

  4. This is fabulous! Meaning, no really it’s fabulous — there’s no other possible interpretation!

  5. L.C. Rooney says:

    One final thought: I loved this post! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Karla Whitney says:

    Enjoy insight to how your brain works. Thank you. It’s like another chapter for “The Evasion English Dictionary” by Maggie Balistreri.

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