x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

‘Let’s do lunch’: putting a name to an insincere phrase

Colin Randall continues his monthly series on words and language.

 It's not too many people who get to coin a word that ends up in the dictionary. Sir Arnold Lunn tried. Charles Krupa / AP
It's not too many people who get to coin a word that ends up in the dictionary. Sir Arnold Lunn tried. Charles Krupa / AP

Sir Arnold Lunn, a British mountaineer, invented the slalom skiing race and probably did more than anyone to raise the profile of winter sports.

He was a prolific writer who thrived on controversy, voicing decidedly rosy views of Mussolini, Franco and his country’s futile attempts to appease Hitler before the Second World War. He died at 86, leaving a voluminous bibliography on mountains, skiing, religion, social sciences and philosophy.

In a busy life, he also offered a new word, phrop, to the English language. This was not among his successes, however, and it is easy to see why such an ungainly term failed to enter common usage.

But 40 years after Sir Arnold’s death, his “attempted neologism”, as some reference sources put it, continues to inspire occasional discussion by those around the English-speaking world sharing his fascination with the use of words.

Phrop, combining “phrase” and “opposite”, was coined by Sir Arnold to describe a statement, most commonly made in a social exchange, in which the actual words convey a meaning contrary to that intended.

Examples of what others, more bluntly, call verbal hypocrisy spring readily to mind. Someone who begins a sentence with the phrase “with the greatest of respect …” may well feel no respect for the person being addressed or the opinion about to be challenged with great force.

From Sir Arnold’s own collection, dating from the early 1950s, are some real gems. “It’s not the money I’m interested in but the principle”, long favoured by courtroom litigants, has been cheerfully adopted and modified, in recent times, by footballers explaining lucrative moves to other clubs. “I hate to mention it, but. …” reveals a firm intention to mention it all the same, though “I’d rather be right than president” is surely no longer a slogan to fool the sophisticated voter.

An American scholar from the same era, Sydney J Harris, offered a few phrops of his own. There was “I don’t like to boast …” before, invariably, a boast; “I am all for progress ...” when the speaker is about to advocate no such thing and “‘I’m only thinking of your interest ...” to precede a proposition of clear self-interest.

So, while standard dictionaries may have found it impossible to include Sir Arnold’s word, the linguistic device it describes is well known. Individuals even fall into a “phrop trap”, using a suspect phrase in ignorance of its presumed opposite meaning. Another US writer, Frank Moraes, noted at his blog, franklycurious.com, that the parting remark, “We must have lunch sometime”, had been defined as meaning “We don’t particularly want to meet again”. A familiar variant, “We must keep in touch”, has come to be understood as “Don’t call – we won’t”. But one of the blog’s readers claimed to have uttered the first of these phrases in absolute honesty on many occasions, concluding wistfully (or, perhaps, phropistically): “I definitely lack social skills.”

The use of phrops extends beyond social contexts. The automated tele­phone system, an irritant of modern life but difficult to avoid, is a rich source of supply. That call-centre mantra, “We are currently experiencing a high volume of calls”, may mean no more than that there are never sufficient staff to cope. “We value your call” can be translated as “We have better things to do than talk to you”.

In his book, The State of the Language: English Observed, Philip Howard, a former literary editor of The Times of London, preferred to call phrops “euphemistic phrases that do not wear their true meaning on their face”. This description fits the language of diplomats like a glove. A “full and frank discussion” indicates that ministers or officials of different countries were at one another’s throats. “Businesslike” also suggests sharp disagreement, without anything necessarily being thrown but also without any business done or agreements reached.

Howard reports in the book that Sir Arnold came up with phrop for a competition in the British political magazine, The New Statesman. Another source, the World Wide Words website (worldwidewords.org), traces its usage to an article in a Jamaican newspaper in 1950.

It is tempting to suppose that Sir Arnold deplored the insincerity of phrops. But in an interview with The New Yorker in 1952, he showed himself to be surprisingly relaxed. “Not that I would do away with phrops,” he assured the magazine. “I think they’re part of civilisation.”

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National