Announcements heard over loudspeakers in airports and planes have their own characteristics, exemplified in Jay Leno’s joke that, during a flight, President Clinton had to return the attendant to her full upright and locked position. Here are some recent everyday specimens, collected on my commuting trip between Colchester and Newcastle.
This delay is due to the late arrival of the inbound aircraft.
Does this really mean what it appears to mean: ‘this plane is late because it’s late’?
This flight is now available for priority boarding at gate 88.
English translation: ‘If you have paid extra, you can now board’. Why say available
for boarding rather than you can
Passengers who have purchased speedy boarding are now invited to board through gate 88.
variation on the last one, notable for purchased
rather than bought and for invited
rather than asked or requested. How
exciting to be invited to something!
any passengers still wishing to travel on this flight please go to gate 88 where
the aircraft awaits its on-time departure?
English translation: ‘You lot in the bar, get a move on’. But there’s a
strange overtone to the idea of people
wishing to travel rather than passengers having tickets and planes waiting
expectantly to leave; I have a compulsion to go to the gate and say ‘Yes
please, I know I’m booked to Newcastle but
I’d love to fly to Rio’.
the unlikely event of having to use a slide please leave your hand baggage on
English translation: ‘If you have to use a slide, don’t take your bag with
you’. The implication of In the unlikely
event … is: ‘Don’t worry, it may never happen’ but it is pretty
cumbersome. What’s wrong with if?
do have a non-smoking policy on-board and we would like to thank you in advance
for observing this.
English translation; ‘Don’t smoke as it’s illegal’. Why should we be
thanked for obeying the law of the land? Thank
you in advance for not driving on the right?
We are commencing our final descent in to Stansted.
English translation: ‘We will start descending soon’. Why commence
rather than start?
safety instructions are equally distinctive.
FASTEN SEATBELT WHILST SEATED
put your seatbelt on if you’re standing up?’ Presumably this means ‘Keep
your belt on all the time in your seat’ but fasten
is a one-off event, keep on is a
continuous one. Why use whilst, the
5839th word in frequency in the BNC, rather than while,
the 174th? Why use all capital letters when research shows a mixture
of capitals and lower case is more legible?
have similar motifs
PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SMOKING ON THIS VEHICLE
not ‘No smoking?’ Why refrain and vehicle?
All the passengers know it’s a bus.
there are technical or legal reasons for the exact wording of some
announcements; they have to give a reason for the delay but don’t want to
admit the engine fell off the plane you were supposed to be on. The pilots are
usually much more informative about reasons for delay, such as food poisoning in
the crew that was supposed to have flown the flight.
underlying reason why announcements and notices have these odd forms is that the
organisation wants to sound ultra-respectable. Given the choice between a short
word like start and a longer word like
commence, they choose the longer one;
given a choice between a simple expression like if
and a complex form like in the event of,
they prefer the complex. It’s a matter of elevating their language to a posher,
more formal form.
they right or wrong? Many passengers doubtless expect this extra level of
formality from airlines; it reassures them that the airline is responsible and
respectable. Take a deviant announcement like one I once heard, If
you smoke in the toilets, we will open the back door of the plane and throw you
out. This may sound flippant and unprofessional, even if rather more human.
the quaintness of Easytalk is easy to poke fun at, it can be dangerous if it
results in passengers not understanding the safety regulations, particularly
those who are not native speakers of English. You need a higher level of English
vocabulary to understand commence,
illuminate, brace and whilst and
to follow the construction in the event of
rather than if.
many years the Plain English Campaign has been exhorting organisations to use
clear English in official documents and forms. They advise ‘Keep your
sentences short’, ‘Prefer short words’, and ‘Prefer active verbs’, all
typical advice in style manuals for a hundred years. Plain English provide a
list of words to avoid and suggest what to put in their place; for example, use before
rather than prior to, keep to rather
than comply with and end
rather than terminate. In a random sample of their list, the undesirable words
have on average 3.8
syllables, the preferred words 1.7. Often the preferred form has a preposition, speed
up rather than accelerate, find
out rather than ascertain.
distinction between short and long words reflects the different historical
strata in the English vocabulary. Words that come from Old English
pre‑Norman Conquest tend to be short: buy,
start. Those that come from French or Latin tend to be longer: purchase,
commence. The legacy of the Norman occupation is that the longer words seem
higher status or more educated, as they were associated with the language spoken
by the elite rulers, French, or the language spoken by the learned, Latin.
longer words still have this association for today’s speakers of English, why
should we object to it in announcements? People being thanked in advance for
observing a non-smoking policy may appreciate its pompous tone more than the
informal Don’t smoke. There’s no
intrinsic reason to choose between purchase
or buy apart from a prejudice for or
against long words.
of course that there is no difference in meaning
between the short word and the long. In some of the Plain English
examples, one word cannot be substituted for another because they mean slightly
different things. Is accelerate
(OED to ‘quicken’, i.e. increase speed continuously) really the same as the
Plain English endorsed speed up (OED ‘increasing
the speed or working rate of a thing’, i.e. to
get to a faster rate of speed)? Is conclusion
(OED ‘final result, upshot’) quite the same as the preferred end (OED ‘One
of the two extremities of a line’)?
Because of the many meanings and overtones that
go with a word, substituting a shorter word for a longer word or vice versa can
change the meaning in many ways. According to
the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon ‘There are no synonyms. There are
no two words that mean exactly the same thing’, a sentiment that most
linguists agree with.
for the airline passenger who is not a native speaker of English some of the
longer words may be easier to understand precisely because of their links to
Latin and Romance languages. The meaning of commence
should be easy to work out for a French speaker who knows commencer, a Spanish speaker who knows comenzar or an Italian who knows cominciare, all derived
compared with the opaque word start
descended from Old English.
use of long latinate words has then split people for hundreds of years.
Some think them erudite and profound, some pretentious, unnecessary and comic.
Part of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late nineteenth century was a return
to the roots in Old English. The most radical advocate was the Dorset dialect
poet William Barnes, whose overall principle was to rid English of words that
did not come from Old English. Here is a samples of his numerous inventions:
omnibus > folkwain
photograph > sun-print
ignorant > loreless
botany > wortlore
grammar > speechcraft
exit > outgate
century > yearhundred
His version of ‘A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country’ was ‘A foresayer is not unworthy, out-taken in his land’.
See also Official words of praise