Dot Wordsworth


Met Office, I’m looking at you

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My husband pointed with his stick, which he carries not to steady himself but to cudgel pedestrians out of his way, and said: ‘What am I supposed to do about that?’ His question was in response to a notice posted up on the wall by a platform at Vauxhall Underground station: ‘Due to our works. Beware of noise. Beware of smell.’

It is part of the current conflation of the meanings of be aware and beware. The confusion runs both ways. That Underground notice was intended to make passengers aware that there would be noise and smell (of burning perhaps), so that they would not flee in alarm. A flight response would have been the appropriate one if instead the notice had said: ‘Beware, Minotaur loose.’

In the opposite direction, the Met Office issues online maps with ‘severe weather warnings’ The parts shaded yellow give the warning: ‘Be aware.’ So the people of Galloway were recently told to ‘be aware’ of rain. If the warning had been orange, the meaning, according to Met Office conventions, would have been, ‘Be prepared,’ and if red, ‘Take action.’ I suppose it is good to be aware that it is raining, even if one if not preparing to put up an umbrella or taking action by doing so. Being aware of floodwater is quite different from taking the advice to beware of it, lest you stall the car engine or fall down a manhole.

The muddying of the meanings of beware and be aware is annoying, for they had succeeded after several centuries in sorting themselves out. Under aware, the Oxford English Dictionary marks as obsolete the meaning of ‘vigilant, cautious’, quoting examples from the 11th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Nicholas Udall, that tiresome Tudor schoolmaster.

As for beware, it has long been established as a queer sort of verb used only in the imperative and the infinitive (and, if you can find it, in the present subjunctive). There had been times when it could be used like a proper verb: Milton managed to write: ‘I had bewar’d if I had foreseen.’ This option is no longer available. But I would not be surprised to see a road sign saying: ‘Thank you for bewaring children’