Johnny and I were sitting in the train when he drew my attention to one of the headlines in the freebie that was lying about. It took me a few seconds to decipher that title. Then it occurred to me that those kind of titles were incomprehensible to many of the tourists who were travelling with us in that London train.
Teaching my students how to write the topic and the main idea sentence of a passage, I instruct them first to look at the title and the subtitle of the article. We usually practice this skill on articles from newspapers such as the New York Times and even The Guardian.
But this technique would never work with the Metro and the Evening Standard, which are full of puns, idioms and slang. As they belong to the culture and the history of the people who speak the language, puns and idioms are the hardest to learn and to use correctly in a foreign language.
I was discussing with my students an article which appeared in several newspapers in the US, the title of which was, “Would your child pick up a gun? Don’t kid yourself.” Perhaps because of the gravity of the subject, some editions refrained from including the pun. It seems to me that, in contrast to most American publications, the British freebies never resist a good pun.
When I first came to Britain in the late 70s I was fortunate to meet the grandfather of an English friend. He was a real Cockney who used to work on the Thames docks. He taught me some Cockney rhyming slang: a beer was “Pig’s ear” and a sister was “a skin and blister.” The issue became more complicated when a beer was replaced with “pig’s,” and a sister with a “skin.” I had to know the whole phrase in order to decode the part which didn’t rhyme. Like Alice in Wonderland, I felt confused. It was a though I was introduced to a secret language, which in a way was what this Cockney rhyming slang was.
London is full with tourists most of the year, and many of them have a good enough mastery of the English language. But if they happen to look at the freebies they would lose all confidence in their language skills. Perhaps this is the sweet revenge of the British, whose island is conquered every year by millions of foreigners: in their own quiet and understating way they make sure that we remain outside.
Oh, and I almost forgot, so what does a fat cat do in the BBC? She draws a fat-cat pay cheque of course.