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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

What's in a word?

Bizarrely, the death of my dog last month made me reflect on how a simple choice of words can make someone's day, or ruin it.

Death words
The first shock came a few seconds after the vet had injected our dog with the anaesthetic that would stop his heart. Even though he was physically supposed to be dead, Binks stretched his head and let out a long long breath, which totally freaked me, as it sounded like someone gasping for air. The vet explained to us this was "completely normal", "just the air coming out of his lungs as all his muscles relaxed". But when he added that the phenomenon was called "agonal gasp", I was frozen with terror.

I would have flinched, even if the situation had not been as traumatic as witnessing your beloved mutt being euthanised right in front of your eyes. But, having conjectured for weeks whether he was suffering or not, the last thing I needed to hear at his moment of death, was a word that sounded like "agony" combined with another like "gasp", both of which normally linked to distress and pain. We could never have forgiven ourselves had we known there had been any suffering or pain involved in the process of putting him to sleep.

Googling the expression at home made my stomach turn even more. The Free Dictionary defines agonal as "pertaining to death or extreme suffering." (That couldn't be right. I desperately needed assurance that he had not suffered, or how could I sleep at night?) Agonal gasp, however, seems to be a medical term referring to "the spasmodic open mouth contraction of the diaphragm and retraction of the hyoid apparatus which occurs at death." A bit more palatable, but not much consolation.

I know the vet meant to sound professional, but, when you are already distressed by the death of your pet, it takes one ominous-sounding word to plunge you into a deeper abyss of grief.

Life words
A few days after we lost our dog, I had to phone the vet's to arrange the details of his cremation. I recognised the voice of the nurse on the other end of the line. Although I never learned her name, I remembered her as one of the nurses who always made a point of making a fuss of Binks and giving him a doggy biscuit whenever we visited.

It was agreed his body would be picked up by the pet crematorium on the Thursday and subsequently returned for collection.

"He will be back to us on Monday and you can collect him then," she said.

It didn't get lost on me that she said "him", not "his ashes". While, my husband and I had been trying to deal with our grief by de-personalising the whole process, the nurse referred to his remains as if he were still a respectable, live dog, and for that I felt stupidly grateful. I had a smile on my face when I put the phone down. Among so much pain and so many tears, one word made me smile.

Do you wanna...?
This weekend I had a discussion with my partner about how odd language usage can be, and how I find some expressions in the English language irritating, almost insulting. 

One of my pet hates is the expression, "Do you want to...[do something]..." when you actually mean, "Could you please [do something]...".

A asking B, "Do you want to shut the door?"to me sounds like an order. B can't really say, "No I don't want to." B has to do it. It's a command. But if A had said, "Could you shut the door?", B could say something like "Of course." or "Uh-huh.", or, if B could really not do it, "Sorry, but I'm busy right now." One could argue, B could decline even if he/she was asked the "want" question, but "want" seems to imply B would perform the action willingly, which may not be the case. 

Too arrogant to my liking.

'Give us a call'
My other big gripe is with the misleading "Give us a call," even when there is only one person to telephone, they are single and they live on their own. It seems to me like cowardly avoidance of responsibility. Instead of admitting that the call would be for him/her, the person is pretending there are more people who could be at the receiving end. And what for?

Imagine a situation where a love-struck young lady is given the phone number of a man she has been fancying for months. He tells her, "Give us a call." One moment she is ecstatic with joy for being invited to call (could this lead to a date?), the next, she is tearing her hair with anxiety, not knowing whether the "us" implies the man already has a lover, who lives with him, or whether he simply shares his accommodation with someone else, therefore the telephone number belongs to a plural number of people.

In most likelihood he didn't literally, mean "us"; he meant to say "give me a call". It was just an unfortunate choice of words, but, oh, how much misery can be created by it.

It is enough agony to make you gasp. If you want to someone to telephone you, at least own up to your phone number, I say.

Never underestimate the power of words.

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