The problem with English

Every now and then I am harassed at work to provide explanations of the difference between certain English words. As my team are all better educated that what I am, guv, it gives me a headache.

Imagine yourself in a work environment, you have things to do but you need to go tell the boss something first. While in the boss’s office a discussion ensues about something important and you end up losing half an hour. You return to your desk and apologise for not being back 30 minutes ago by saying “I’m sorry but I was hijacked by the boss!”.

You are then asked to define the word ‘hijack’ and subsequently to explain the difference between ‘hijack’ and ‘kidnap’. The inference being that I was kidnapped by the boss and not hijacked because I am not a means of transport.

I’m comfortable with hijack because for the me the key point is that I was diverted from my intended route by powers beyond my control. As there was no ransom demand or intention to lock me in the stationery cupboard until my boss got what he wanted, kidnapped seems all wrong.

Am I right?

A follow up teaser the same day was to explain the difference between “compulsory” and “mandatory”. The best I could do with this one was to suggest that they both mean you have to do something but mandatory has legal implications and compulsory doesn’t. One assumes a similar root as the Polish “mandat”?

How am I doing? I’d hate to be leading people astray, even if I do reserve the right to use and abuse my language the way I see fit.

11 thoughts on “The problem with English

  1. I, as un representative of nation full of “wujek dobra rada” or rather “aunt Helena” I will explain you Scatts:

    you cuoldn’t be kidnapped because you are too old, too big to be taken for a kid!

    I know that every man are boys all their life, but this is not enough to be qualified as being kidnapped by anyone when you are 50 years old!!! :D

  2. a hilarious and lovely post.

    Poles have bigger problems with their complicated language. Your reasoning with kidnapped and hijacked seems logical, though I’d argue that “kidnapped” suits better.

    Good point with the next example. Poles break their backs trying to figure out the difference between compulsory and mandatory. And how about ‘trade’ and ‘commerce’?


    Given the above, your explaination was correct. It is interesting how english allows the morphing and ‘przenośny’ use of words much more than Polish.

    I was having an illuminating discussion online with a very clever chap re the use of double negatives in Polish when using negative pronouns and I was trying to insist that ‘nic’ should mean ‘nothing’ or ‘anything’ according to context (for example the latter when used in double negatives). He was put out by such an idea. Imagine having a word mean something different depending on context? God fobid LOL ;)

  4. and then there’s ‘compelled’ to add to the mix,if you wish to clarify even more ;) I could go on ……… Oooops! I have!! LOL

  5. The problem is that the spoken language evolves all the time, and it may be that the difference between compulsory and mandatory is simply not as great as it was initially, or that the two have a different significance in a different variant of English. I agree with you that ‘mandatory’ has legal associative connotations, but I’m not sure that it has actual legal significance: the word to use would probably be ‘obligatory’ or ‘binding’ or something like that.

    It’s so hard when people ask you why one expression is right in one place and not in another: it normally ‘just is’, because that’s what usage dictates. Most rules describing English grammar are entirely made up :)

  6. kidnap – uprowadzenie and porwanie
    hijack – porwanie

    “uprowadzenie” is less violent than “porwanie”

    mandatory – obowiązkowo
    compulsory – przymusowo (kompulsja = czynność przymusowa)

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