Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 1 May 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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Well, the Poles are in the European Union, and very welcome they are too as far as I’m concerned. Already Tesco and Carrefour are flogging the poor things centrally distributed comestibles with sell-by dates on them.

From my archives (a bundle of post extracted from a pile of unread medical magazines to which my husband subscribes as part of his ‘ongoing education’), I retrieve an interesting letter from Mr Peter Kassler of Haslemere. ‘We noticed recently,’ he writes, ‘in a Carrefour supermarket in southern France that a lack of mineral water on the shelves was explained by a printed card as a result of “mouvements sociaux à notre plateforme de distribution”.’

On the Kasslers’ return to England they found a similar card on an otherwise bare shelf of their local Tesco. ‘It informed customers that the absence of fresh food was due to “issues at our distribution centre”.’ This neatly illustrates the interplay between lexical choice and cultural presuppositions. Neither rules out silliness.

In countries with a more ingrained habit of socialism, public notices often invoke what we English call ‘industrial action’. Just as this phrase denotes the opposite, that is, inaction, so mouvements sociaux suggest to some people antisocial behaviour.

From Tesco’s explanation it is not clear whether there is a strike at the distribution centre or whether perhaps a fire had broken out or someone had lost a key. What do we learn from the adoption of issues as an English analogue to the French explanatory terms? That is not so easy to tell, for issues is a weasel word, at its worst when coupled with around, as in ‘issues around sexuality’. But it can be used unreflectingly as a synonym for either ‘problem’ or ‘dispute’. I hate it.

By the way, I began with a ‘well’. This verbal tick annoys Mr James Bothwell of Edinburgh, who blames Mr Jack Straw for being its chief exponent. There are parallels in Greek and Latin and modern European languages. I am not quite sure what the objection is. Presumably the word’s usefulness to a politician being interviewed is to provide a response which is neither an assent nor a denial, and which can serve as a buffer separating the suggestions of the question from the approach intended by the answerer. That is a lot for a little word. In any case it is better than ‘er’, I’d have thought. Do you have an issue with it?