English is tricky (aka “The Unconscious Customer” or “Are you conscious of your conscience?”)

I was reading about H&M’s environmental and socio-economic awareness (steady on!) which they’re running under the banner H&M Conscious. The first heading of their “Conscious Actions Highlights from 2012” PDF (found in their “highlights from 2012” link) reads: “Commitment One: Provide fashion for conscious customers” – see below:

H&M banner title reads "Commitment One: Provide fashion for conscious customers" - I find conscious customers are always far more likely to buy than unconscious ones...

I find conscious customers are always far more likely to buy than unconscious ones…

Immediately it struck me (as it would most native English speakers) that they were using the wrong word! The majority of people will understand ‘conscious’ as “to be alive”, whereas ‘conscientious’ (the adjective of ‘conscience’) as meaning “done according to one’s inner sense of what is right” (which is what I think they were getting at). Replacing “Conscious” with “Conscientious” throughout their copy would not only be more accurate but also convey far more commitment to the central theme of sustainability. I realise that conscious can also mean “to be aware of” but it generally infers far less concern than conscientious does. Perhaps H&M wish to infer more of a “lighter touch” to the subject matter and distance themselves from too much of a commitment? Reneging on the published mandate would be disconcerting – according to the mighty Wiki H&M aren’t out of the woods when it comes to controversies (sadly some of them relate to the very subject that this “Conscious” promotion addresses).

Now my Swedish (H&M’s home country) is not too hot either so I’m certainly not going to ridicule H&M for their faux pas (fashion-wise or not). But it got me thinking as to how much of a minefield the English language is. If you look up the meanings of conscience and conscious the definitions do get close to one another (e.g. conscious: fully aware of or sensitive to something / conscience: an inner feeling or voice viewed as a guide) so it’s not just a matter of using the right word, it’s also a question of context. The only effective way context can be fully understood is by speaking and reading English regularly – as it’s also a language that is constantly evolving.

A prime example of this “word evolution” is the word gay – very few people will now use it to talk about the prettiness of a flower or the vibrant colours of a dress yet those meanings still exist in the dictionary – though very much lower in the definitions order from the more recognised meanings pertaining to homosexuality. I wonder if this redefining of a word’s meaning occurs in other languages?

And then there’s spelling – a pet subject of mine. Someone pointed out a really great example of how the English language flagrantly disregards rules that have been created to help de-mystify it:

I before E….

…except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbour.

Again, only learning these spellings (or relying on spellcheck) will ensure that you get it rite – and an example there of why you shouldn’t rely on spellcheckers 😉

As a language English is tricky and I have the greatest of admiration for those learning English as a second language – it’s such a “twisty turny thing” (© Black Adder – BBC TV comedy, uniquely British in content – Google it!). If you are a student battling your way through English Language studies I have no better suggestion for improving your vocabulary and use of it other than reading and viewing English publications / productions whenever you get the opportunity and talking to as many English people as you can! I’m not going to address the whole English / British vs “American English” subject as that would take up a whole post on its own – suffice to say that England invented the language and America “tweaked” it (mainly on spellings and “inventing” words). Through watching BBC (and other UK production companies’) programmes you may NEVER understand the “British humour” (which is not just Monty Python) but you will gain a method of keeping up with the evolving language and hopefully be entertained on the way 🙂

What was that? Exqueeze me? Baking powder? (AKA misheard lyrics)

My 5 year old daughter has just learnt a new song (courtesy of a schoolfriend). Now normally I’d be extremely concerned if I heard her singing the lyrically suggestive “I’m Sexy And I Know It” LMFAO song, however she has thankfully been taught a far more sedate (and hilarious when you consider the spoof possibilities) version:

“I’m Sixty And I Know It”

Which got me thinking about the various songs I’ve heard misquoted lyrically. Many of them courtesy of my wonderful Mum – who has a real knack for malapropisms. Here’s just a few of them (and you do have to listen to the originals to work out how these came about – YouTube / Spotify / iTunes time!)

Sade’s “Smooth Operator” was apparently “Smooth My Umbrella” (though quite why someone would feel the need to smooth their umbrella is beyond me).

“Big Fun” by Inner City with the line “The party’s just begun, yeh, yeh, yeh, yeaah. We’re having big fun” does, to be fair to my Mum’s ears, sound like the vocalist is singing The party’s just begun, yeh, yeh, yeh, yeaah. We’re having meatballs” – which in certain parts of Italy may well be “big fun”.

A friend of mine’s daughter rocks out to Kings Of Leon’s “Sex On Fire” though rather than the original “Your sex is on fire!” line, she goes for the far more daring (and indeed more grammatically correct) “Your socks are on fire!”.

And then my own misheard mishap…

Until the age of about fifteen I believed the lyrics to the “modern” hymn “Lord Of The Dance” – which has the line:
“Dance then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance, said he”

were, to my (relatively) young ears, in fact:
“Dance then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance settee”
I used to have this vision of a “funky sofa” – and still to this day I think my version is a better one… (not a particularly edifying hymn, but a fine “inclusive” Christian song for the clubbing fraternity).

Anyone got any of their own misheard lyrics that they’d care to share?

The genesis of words.

“Oh bonks!”
This is my eldest daughter’s (she’s 4) current exclamation of dismay, frustration or disappointment. It sounds worse than it reads but it got me thinking.. Who chooses what words are “bad” – there’s the obvious stuff where it’s offensive in a racist, sexist or other “-ist” way. However there are other words that are just “bad”. All of these words would at some point have been uttered for the first time by someone – did they know it was destined to be blacklisted? Who decides which words are to be regarded as “bad”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a potty-mouthed individual and I’ll be one of the first to be upset by a verbal tirade of publically unacceptable words, but when were they added to the rude list and who wrote it?

I’m confused – oh bonks!