You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to. (Humbert Wolfe)
“If you have a berth in your company for this gentleman, make sure it is a wide one.” This was in a recommendation given to a shiftless employee by a boss who understood very well the intricacies of the English Language. A berth can be one of several things – the place allotted to a ship at a wharf or dock; a bunk (or sleeping place) on a ship, train or other means of transport; or even a place on a team e.g. “Rooney, normally a striker, looked lost in the centre-back berth.”
So the first “berth” in the recommendation translates into “place” or “job”. However, why a “wide” berth? Is it that the employer was considerate of the comfort of the lazy employee and wanted to make sure that when the man inevitably fell asleep on the job, he wouldn’t do himself a grievous injury? This is where English can get very tricky indeed.
To give a “wide berth” to something means to stay very far away from it. The advice for a ship “to give a wide berth” to an island, for instance, means that there are reefs, rocks or sandbanks around the islands so that it is best to keep far away. In the case of the job letter, the employer played on words knowing that the employee to whom he gave the reference would not understand that what he thought was a positive testimonial was in fact very negative indeed and was intended to warn any prospective employer against hiring him.
What compounds the problem are those dratted homophones. In the case of berth, there is birth so that to give birth and to give berth are two different things entirely. When this is added to the fact that many Caribbean people pronounce both “there” and “day” as “day” and there are classics like, “He day day day”, one can imagine a Trini dock worker telling the Captain of an English vessel, “Berth day”, meaning to tie up the ship in a particular location, and the Captain’s bewildered response, “No my dear chap, it’s not until February.”
In fact the same dock worker might go to his friend Bertrand’s house and ask, “Bert day?” The classic is peak, peek and pique (which sounds like a law-firm). Peak means the highest point of something, such as the peak of a mountain. Peek means to take a quick, often sneaky look at something. Pique means to excite interest, but it can also mean being irritated.
Example: “The journalist piqued my interest in the church that Manning and his faith healer had supposedly built on top of the mountain, so I decided to climb to the peak and have a peek for myself.” You also have vane, vain and vein.
In the same vein, and the reason I started thinking about differences of meaning in similar-sounding words, are some recent stories in British, American and Trinidad newspapers advocating that journalists must have a licence to practice. There are two problems here so let us start with the simpler one – the word practice. The Oxford dictionary says that if you move from the realm of theories to actually applying an idea, then you have put it into practice. If you carry out or exercise a profession, you have a practice so that a doctor will have a medical practice and can even have a practice in a particular location as in, “Dr. James has a practice in the St John’s area.” But then some doctors can use their patients for practice which, in this context, is “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.”
This is the first problem that some people have with journalism and those who practise the profession. It is compounded by the fact that while the British differentiate between “practice” and “practise”, Americans use “practice” to mean both the noun and verb. Oxford warns, “Care should be taken with the use of the words practice and practise as there are differences in British and US usage.
Practice is the correct spelling for the noun in both British and US English and it is also the spelling of the verb in US English. However, in British English the verb should be spelled practise.” However, as one wit said, “In the case of the media, practice does not make perfect.”
Which brings us to the word licence. It is a permit as in a “gun licence” or a “dog licence”. In fact, such is the esteem in which the honourable profession of journalism is held (ranking in a recent UK poll as one of the least respected professions – together with advertising executives, government ministers, lawyers and real estate agents) that a friend commenting on it was adamantly in favour.
“If they could licence dogs, then they should licence journalists,” he declared. Licence also means “freedom to behave as one wishes, especially in a way that results in excessive or unacceptable behavior” (e.g. The government was criticized for giving the army too much license), and “a reason or excuse to do something wrong or excessive” (e.g. Police say that the lenient sentence is a license to assault). The Webster Dictionary (American) defines licence as both “permission to act” and “freedom that allows or is used with irresponsibility”.
So, should journalists be licensed because they have too much licence? Or, as my friend said, “They shouldn’t only licence them, they should chain them too!” Increasingly, just as there are lawyer jokes, there are journalist jokes that echo Marilyn Monroe’s condemnation of journalists as “vultures”.
I have always believed that when people make jokes about a politician it is time to leave. When people make jokes about a profession, it is time for revaluation. This joke says it all. A man went into a bar and saw a beautiful woman on a stool by herself. After a while he went over to her and asked, “Would you mind if I chatted with you for a while?” She responded by yelling at the top of her lungs, “No, I won’t sleep with you tonight!”
Everyone in the bar was now staring at them. The poor man slunk back to his table. After a few minutes, the woman walked over to him and apologized. “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you,” she said. “You see, I’m a journalist and I’ve got an assignment to study how people respond to embarrassing situations.” He smiled and responded at the top of his lungs, “What do you mean two hundred dollars?”
Tony Deyal was last seen repeating a comment attributed to former US President Lyndon Johnson, “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read, “President Can’t Swim.”
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