The Problem of Bums on Seats

Seats awaiting bums
Seats awaiting bums.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that the reason that the language mutates so much is that we do not exercise enough of our vocabulary.  Firstly, if people don’t hear a word in use, they don’t know that it exists and therefore they feel the need to invent another one for the same purpose.  Thus are synonyms born.  Secondly, we learn words by hearing them spoken in context.  If a word is in infrequent use, then it is easy to make mistakes about the context and, by repeating them, to change the meaning.

There are particular problems with English.  It has a huge lexicon, with Anglo-Saxon roots supplemented by loan words ancient and modern.  Furthermore, it is spoken in many different countries (as official language or lingua franca) and so it mutates at different rates, giving the same word different meanings in different places.  Take for example “presently” and “momentarily”.

I still speak an old-fashioned variety of British English in which “presently” does not mean “at present”.  To me, presently is used to indicate the near future; a future time with a direct connection to the present.  For use of it in this sense, go back to your childhood, and look at The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.  (If necessary, borrow someone else’s childhood for the purpose.)  Similarly, I can distinguish between “in a moment” and “for a moment”.  For the former, I would use “soon” or, indeed, “presently”.  To me “momentarily” has the latter meaning: fleeting; for the shortest possible time.  (So I can distinguish between “I will join you presently,” and “I will join you momentarily.”)  When I made regular flights into San Francisco airport, I was plagued by visions of my worldly goods flashing before my eyes before being dumped into the bowels of the airport, never to be seen again.  The cause of this discomfort was the announcement “your luggage will be on the carousel momentarily”.

Another example that causes particular grief in the Lazy Bee Scripts office is the simple verb “to sit”.  Sit is an active verb.  It describes an act of doing, not a state of being.  “The teacher told the pupils to sit and they sat.”  That past tense describes the act of having bent the knees and engaged buttocks with chair.  It does not describe the end point.  It tells us that the pupils executed the instruction, but not what they were doing afterwards.  The reason this vexes me (and causes loud expostulations from Sue, the proof reader) is that we keep finding scene-setting directions that say things like “the king is sat on the throne”.  Read that again, bearing in mind that “to sit” is an active verb.  The only way that the direction “is sat” can be interpreted is that it is something being done to the king: as the curtain rises someone forces him onto his throne.

This is one of those occasions where we have lost a word.  We need a word that indicates that as the curtain rises, the king is already in position on his throne.  Having forgotten the word, we butcher the language by using the past tense of an active verb to indicate a passive present.  To rediscover this word, approach your favourite chair and put your buttocks thereupon.  Now wriggle a little to achieve an even distribution of your weight on the supporting furniture.  When you are comfortable, you will realise that you have seated yourself.  The king is seated.

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