What’s in a name?

Travelling by bus leads Neil Tucker’s mind to wander from Einstein to linguistics and beyond.

Plenty of post office vans, but no postmen. There are only ‘posties’ now. (31073775)
Plenty of post office vans, but no postmen. There are only ‘posties’ now. (31073775)

YOU can get quite a good view from the 92.

If you sit near the front, you can appreciate a little of what it’s like for the driver.

You might even be reminded of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Although I suppose that depends on how familiar you are with the great man’s work in the first place. And whether you have a good imagination.

After all, it’s nothing to do with travelling near the speed of light, we are talking about a Guernsey bus after all.

But Albert’s theory essentially predicts that everything is relative and depends on the observer’s frame of reference – and you can see this if you sit near the front of the bus.

From the driver’s point of view, the road is full of annoying obstacles, such as parked cars or dawdling cyclists, not to mention the ubiquitous Road Closed signs.

And it is often bordered by tall hedges or granite walls, threatening to demolish the wing mirrors as the bus tries to pass.

From the car driver’s perspective, however, the oncoming bus is an over-sized juggernaut that fills the entire field of vision as well as the road, and threatens to inflict the same demolition job on the car’s fragile wing mirrors. Or at least change their colour coordination.

While for a cyclist, even if a bus is following properly behind, waiting patiently for a chance to overtake, it’s an unnerving omnipresence that can’t be ignored, like a predatory stalker threatening to pounce at any moment.

And there’s one obstacle in the road which seems to appear in all frames of reference recently: the post office van.

Have you noticed? They seem to be everywhere.

Of course, the number of these vehicles has increased in order to cope with the growth in parcel deliveries in the island. Bicycle deliveries have consequently become rare occurrences.

But it’s not only postmen on bikes who have become rare; postmen generally seem to have disappeared.

For I have noticed that recent articles have referred only to ‘posties’.

I presume that is an attempt to find a noun which covers both men and women, rather like using the term ‘firefighter’ instead of fireman.

But ‘postie’?

It sounds like a sticky yellow notelet that gets stuck on computer surrounds in disorganised offices.

Or perhaps a typographically impaired traditional Cornish delicacy.

I can understand the modern trend to try to find an inclusive term that includes both males and females, especially when describing a position that can be held by either, or both.

That’s not the same as the rather febrile debate about whether men and women can still be called men and women. It’s simply an attempt to find a word that can mean either.

And in many cases a word already exists, like receptionist, for example, and even ‘nurse’ without the unnecessary ‘male’ adjective in front. They describe the role rather than the person performing it.

However, sometimes a pre-existing word doesn’t quite fit, and needs a slight tweak in meaning, and this can lead to a lively discussion about the whole purpose of the exercise.

There was a fuss recently when the RAF announced it would in future use the term ‘aviator’ instead of airman, not just because it would apply to females, but because it would include even ground-based staff as well as personnel who fly.

And to confuse matters, apparently some female naval personnel are happy to be called ‘able seaman’, considering it a rank rather than a gender description.

But where there isn’t a current word which describes a role, surely an attempt could be made to find or even invent a reasonably articulate word based on etymology, rather than a colloquialism like ‘postie’?

I wonder what job title appears on their contract of employment? Perhaps it’s been amended with a little yellow notelet.

On the other hand, I suppose I should be grateful that those responsible have avoided a civil service-esque name. Otherwise we might be referring to postal delivery facilitation operatives.

I was reflecting on this as the 92 bus passed another post office van, and it occurred to me that different words are sometimes used not to satisfy the modern desire for inclusivity, but as an attempt to steer the reader away from any preconceived idea which the obvious word might invoke. A subtle attempt to avoid saying what a term really is, in the hope that the reader won’t identify its true nature.

Like referring to GST rather than VAT, for example? You decide.

On other occasions a change in terminology happens seemingly by stealth, often as the result of a creeping influence from other countries which share our language.

How, for example, has a simple white coffee become a flat white?

Apparently the Aussies are to blame for that.

Of course the world of publicity and advertising is known for stretching the meaning of words to make an object sound appealing or to make a good tag line.

Aurigny’s fog-busting technology, for example, no doubt involves impressive technological advances. But is it actually possible to ‘bust’ fog?

Surely punching it with your fist, or hitting it with a hammer, or even presumably with an aircraft, doesn’t actually cause it much damage.

And I’m sure you’ve noticed recently that a Bag for Life isn’t.

On that subject, I recently saw a container in a supermarket which contained old carrier bags for people to take and reuse. I thought that was a good idea and I actually took one myself.

But then I noticed that the sign on the container described them as ‘pre-loved bags’.

Even allowing for poetic licence, can anyone actually ‘love’ a plastic supermarket carrier bag? And if they did, would they throw the object of their affection so callously in a supermarket bin? That’s surely worse than dumping a loved one by text.

Talking of texts, such messages are notorious for misunderstandings, because so many words depend on context for their meaning. That’s what makes the English language so colourful and literature so interesting.

And the textosphere is so full of apologies. That’s my invented word, by the way.

But this leaves the meaning of some words open to interpretation. We’ve heard a lot recently about affordable housing, for example. But what does that mean? How affordable is ‘affordable’?

I heard a cynic on the bus commenting on plans to build thousands of houses in the north of the island. The gist was that if they are crammed together so everyone looks into someone else’s window, and owners can’t use cars because traffic is gridlocked, and there are no places for the schoolchildren, perhaps that would keep the price down and make them affordable.

I was waiting for the commentator’s companion to say they were sure the planners would have thought of that, but I didn’t hear the reply.

And you may have read that almost 200 of the homes could be built on the site of the data park in St Sampson’s. That was reportedly reserved as a ‘key industrial area’, which apparently meant it was not available for housing.

Obviously the term ‘key industrial area’ was open to interpretation. Or total abandonment.

Still, at least the residents won’t have to pay for traffic lights to be installed to exit onto Route Militaire. That might help with affordability.

And it’s not just the northern parishes. As the 92 bus travels down the west coast, you can see lots of new properties on that side of the island. And some of those illustrate just how the meaning of the words congruous or sympathetic to surroundings can be stretched beyond recognition.

Presumably the designers used a different definition. Or had a national competition to enter.

But since many of these houses have been bought or even built fairly recently, the purchasers must have considered them affordable.

Once again it seems Albert Einstein had it right all those years ago: everything depends on your frame of reference.

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