Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 12 December 2009

A triply annoying poster at Victoria Station shouts at passengers: ‘Need the toilet?’

A triply annoying poster at Victoria Station shouts at passengers: ‘Need the toilet?’

A triply annoying poster at Victoria Station shouts at passengers: ‘Need the toilet?’ It then taunts them with the information that without a 20p piece and a 10p piece (an unlikely combination to find in one’s purse) they will not be able to get into the public lavatory. Annoyance number one.

The other two annoyances are socio-linguistic in character. Toilet is bad enough. To hear it upon the lips of their children is worse, for many a mother struggling to educate their daughters, than to find nits in the hair. The collocation of need is the killer. To need the lavatory instead of wanting to go there is as bad as being asked if you need a cup of coffee. My husband has just shouted over from his chair that he needs a drink, but that only proves the point. A child is taught to say not ‘I need’ something but ‘May I?’ do something.

The urgency of need has been exploited by nurses, air-hostesses and other bossy types, who couch requests in the form: ‘I need you just to fill in this form for me.’ The ‘for me’ is introduced to imply that reluctance would be a personal slight.

Another unwelcome development is in the meaning of needy. We know its old sense. ‘I distribute food to the needy and get a sense of vicarious generosity in the process,’ Evelyn Waugh wrote to his wife from Dubrovnik in January 1945. ‘I do not think there is any military appointment so congenial — good architecture, good food, good wine, blameless life, and for once in my life a sense of being very popular.

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