Metro 49

Richard Herring: Sometimes the best jokes are lost in translation

Friday 25 Jan 2013

We were about to fly off on holiday and, as the seat belt signs flashed on, my wife (top comedian Catie Wilkins) tweeted: ‘I put my phone on airplane settings and it told me not to call it Shirley.’ To be fair, she tweets this every time we fly but so she should, it’s a good joke. I retweeted it.

It’s not like Twitter is a menagerie of humourless pedants with empty lives but when I later checked my replies, someone had informed me that ‘airplane’ was an Americanism and that as I was British I should use the word aeroplane. Yes, because that would be a great joke, wouldn’t it? Firstly, no phone (as far as I am aware) calls this function ‘aeroplane settings’, but even if one did, that cack-handed edit ensures that the joke no longer makes sense. Had I tweeted: ‘I put my plane on aeroplane settings and it told me not to call it Shirley,’ people would assume I had lost my mind.

Are there any Brits that even use the word ‘aeroplane’ any more? We call a plane ‘a plane’, don’t we? Aeroplane sounds like something coined in the 17th century by a huckster in a travelling circus. Nowadays, you only need add the aero if the plane is made out of bubbly chocolate. Though, personally, I’d love to travel in an Aero-plane: you could snack on your armrest if you got peckish, though you might get carried away and end up chewing off a wing. Doubtless someone will now tweet me to say: ‘Your chocolate aeroplane idea is so ridiculous as to be almost comical. The heat generated by the chocolate engines would melt the fuselage.’ Pedantry is comedy’s kryptonite.

But worse than the pedantry is the snobbishness about language. ‘The English created English and now it belongs to us and no on can change it.’ Seems a bit tough on the Americans, who actually invented the airplane, so should probably get to choose what it’s called. ‘No, you can’t, because you’re speaking English, which belongs to us. And your invention is called “The aeronautical-phantasmagorical-anti-gravitational-charabanc”. That’s decided. And cannot be altered.’

The idea that there is something called ‘English’, which is written in stone and unchangeable, shows no understanding of the history of our language or our nation. You only have to read a few old books to see that what Chaucer called English was pretty different to what Shakespeare called English, which was quite dissimilar to Dickens’s English. And Dickens would probably be pretty confused if he got a text from my niece (I know I am).
Language is an ever-evolving entity. There are rules, but the rules bend and break, depending on usage. New words are created through abbreviation, conflation, misunderstanding and poetic invention.

That’s right. You can just make up new words! I am going to do it now. ‘Fruunkflaat’, the definition of which is so offensive that I am disgusted that the Metro newspaper has printed it. But if enough people like the word ‘Fruunkflaat’ (really Metro? That’s twice now), then it gets to go in the dictionary. Make it happen!

There’s something democratic and wonderful about it all. Our language is living and breathing and, like the English people, the English language is a mongrel created by thousands of years of invasion and immigration. Most of our words are appropriated from other languages. So to complain about us adopting a few American words, after giving them so many, is ‘plane stupid’.

@pedanticnob Can I be the first to point out that you spelled ‘plain’ incorrectly there? How embarrassing!

See RichardÂ’s reworking of his hit show, Talking Cock: The Second Coming, on his nationwide tour.