Reading between the lines

2nd March 2012 at 00:00

The editor's email arrived out of the blue. "Next time you're in London," he said, "let me know and I'll take you for dinner." If you're a bloke you probably think that's an invitation to a meal. For you, language is a Chubb lock, a high-security anti-pilfer mechanism that handcuffs words and meaning together. Not so for women. Words for us are just the pointy bit of the iceberg sticking out of the water; the real body of meaning lurks menacingly beneath.

Here's an example. A while ago, my mate Sandra was sitting on a train to London. The chap next to her asked if he could borrow the sports section of her paper. By the time they reached Peterborough, she had scrutinised every word of his request using her female Enigma machine and was starting to write their John Lewis list and book a date with the caterers.

And women don't just over-analyse language - we also subvert it. A man says "I'm fine" to tell you he's OK; a woman says "I'm fine" to indicate anything but. "Fine" for us is synonymous with "I want to be left alone" or, "If you leave your bloody laptop on the table once more, I'll chop off your external devices and bake them in a pie." Oddly, "fine" can also mean: "Please make me some tea, it's been a crap day."

So when the email arrived, I sought advice from my female friends. "He wants to give you a pay rise," squealed one. "You're getting the sack," said another. A third studied the email intently, then wearily declared: "That usually means he wants to take you to Nando's, buy you a beer and do what he wants with you." She's not had an easy time of it looking for Mr Right.

I tried Skyping my husband. "What does it mean?" I asked. He was too busy trying on his webcam's supply of comedy hats to hear what I'd said. I tried again: "What does it mean?" This time I emphasised the word "mean" like it was written in italics and had its own tuba accompaniment. "It doesn't `mean' anything," he replied, irritated by my lack of enthusiasm for his millinery antics. "It just `means' he wants to have dinner."

Cue a trip to London. I had to resolve the issue before I was overwhelmed by the kind of paranoia that I usually only experience after I've fed my family out-of-date pork. It was a difficult trip. Half-term meant that London was full of kids. Not sullen, drag-arsed teenagers like mine, but wholesome, milk-fed infants being weaned on to high culture by loudly ambitious parents. And toddlers are like farts: you can tolerate your own but other people's are repugnant. After dodging pushchairs on the Tube, I headed out for dinner.

Our meeting was surprisingly innocuous. The editor was interested in where I stood on academies and the rise of social media. "How do you fancy tweeting?" he asked. I bit back my initial response that I would sooner spend my time licking mould spores from the drip tray of my old Zanussi fridge.

Twitter is too intimidating. It's like being in the world's scariest book club; at any moment you might overhear Alain de Botton and Stephen Fry talk about Finnegans Wake. It's frightening. People who tweet read newspapers and embrace political debate. I eat biscuits and hide giant Toblerones away for a rainy day. Besides which, there's the humiliating prospect of being followed by 10 people, nine of whom share your DNA.

"So what do you think?" he asked. "Fine," I say. "That would be fine."

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England.

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