Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Plane Talk: Plainer English

By Anthony Deyal

Almost every airport in the world is now closed to passenger traffic and all I can do in these weeks and maybe months of self-imposed imprisonment is revel in flights of fancy and indulge in what I call “Plane” English as distinct from “Plain English”.

Although I live on the “Fantasy Island” of Trinidad and Tobago where reality is a bad word and a nightmare is when you dream that the country’s rum-shops, brothels, and casinos are closed forever, I am not referring to the catchphrase from the TV series of that name in which the diminutive Tattoo sees a plane approaching and while shouting out “Boss, Boss, deplane, de plane” rings a bell. While this might ring a bell for some of my older readers, I am more concerned about what you read or hear when you’re on cloud nine.

My favourite is the sign “Fasten your seat belt while seated.”  I used to tell myself that the sign did not make sense since the belt is not long enough for you to fasten it when you’re standing or in any other part of the plane.  Eventually, I found out that while it does not follow the rules of grammar as we know it, the fasten seat belt sign follows the grammar rules for signs and these are different from those that govern speech. In Plain (and not Plane) English, the sign would read, “(You damn fool) Fasten (your effing) seat belt when (you are) seated.” Fortunately, spoken Plane English, especially by some flight attendants, makes up in humor, friendliness, and simplicity what the signs are clearly lacking.

On one flight the attendant surprised everybody with, “Position your seat belt tight, low and across your hips, like my grandmother wears her support bra.”  Another came up with, “To operate your seat belt insert the metal tab into the buckle and pull tight. It works just like every other seat belt; if you don’t know how to operate a seat belt you probably shouldn’t be out in public unsupervised.” While our Caribbean Airlines and LIAT flight attendants stick to badly written, memorised and recited scripts, other airlines are encouraging humour in uniform. On one flight the passengers were told, “Thank you for flying Delta Business Express.

We hope you enjoyed giving us the business as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride.” Out of the cockpit came the announcement, “Hi, I’m Captain Amanda Smith. Yes, I’m a female pilot and as a benefit, if we get lost on the way I won’t be afraid to stop and ask for directions.” On another flight, the stewardess said, “Please be careful when opening the overhead bins because shift happens.” The two announcements I like are, “Sorry about the bumpy landing.  It’s not the captain’s fault. It’s not the co-pilot’s fault. It’s the asphalt” and “Please remain seated until the plane is parked at the gate. At no time in history has a passenger beaten a plane to the gate. So please don’t even try.”

After the brilliant and funny examples of plane English, I won’t even try anymore but move on to the bigger picture of what is known as the “Plain English Campaign” (PEC), a company formed in 1979 to persuade organisations in the UK and abroad to communicate with the public in plain language. Every year PEC gives out the “Foot In Mouth Award” for “a baffling comment by a public figure” and the “Golden Bull Award” for “the worst examples of written tripe”.

In 2004, Boris Johnson won the “Foot In Mouth Award” for his comment on a BBC quiz show, “I could not fail to disagree with you less.” He won again in 2016 with, “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a Titanic success of it.”  In 2016, Donald Trump, described by the PEC as “unrivalled”, won with his remarks on Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” PEC also cited Trump’s comments on John McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Mitt Romney, another US presidential candidate, boasted about his patriotism, “I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.” My favourite is by Naomi Campbell, the English supermodel who won in 2006 for the priceless, “I love England, especially the food. There’s nothing I like more than a lovely bowl of pasta.”

The Golden Bull Award is given to an organisation which has made what is deemed by the campaign to be a confusing and bad use of English.

In 1980, the British National Health Service won with a 229-word definition of a bed and the 1981 winner received a parcel of tripe through the mail. Starbucks is one of the 2018 candidates and may soon have to add tripe to its menu for this gem of obfuscation, “While certain demand headwinds are transitory, and some of our cost increases are appropriate investments for the future, our recent performance does not reflect the potential of our exceptional brand and is not acceptable.”

But the one that stuns me is from the BBC, an organisation which boasts that it informs, educates and entertains – wherever you are, whatever your age. It makes me wonder about the age of the person who wrote, “BBC staff have been told to use non-binary pronouns when addressing gender-fluid or transgender employees to ensure that the corporation does not develop a ‘heteronormative’ culture.” Given a choice, I would prefer a Plane English speaker who says, “And today we have someone who is celebrating their 21st birthday. Please stand up Mr Jones. Fancy that, 21 and never been in a Virgin.”

*Tony Deyal was last seen quoting a flight attendant who said to her passengers, “Now that you’ve had your morning coffee, please return your seats to their upright and most uncomfortable position.”



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