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Jane Bates: mind your language to avoid a 'right old stew'

Every language has an array of confusing phrases that are part of everyday speech and we must be mindful of this when talking to patients and colleagues, says Jane Bates

Every language has an array of confusing phrases that are part of everyday speech and we must be mindful of this when talking to patients and colleagues, says Jane Bates


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‘Bad luck!’ I said to the waiter, who was not a native English speaker. I was grovelling on the floor, picking up pieces of shattered glass after he had knocked over a champagne flute.

But instead of appreciating the sympathy, he got himself into a right old stew. ‘Bad luck?’ He said. ‘Is it bad luck to break a glass?’

'No, no', I reassured him, but he wouldn’t listen. He had misunderstood the expression, which means ‘never mind, it was only an accident’, and thought I meant that smashing a drinking vessel was an augur of doom. I had ruined his day and I felt dreadful.

Language is a minefield, and so we must continue to be aware of this when it comes to employing nurses for whom English is not their first language. My waiter could obviously function well in English but only to a point, and I was in the same boat when I worked in France. 

Hamstrung by the subtleties of language

Although I could speak textbook French pretty well, my lack of understanding of everyday idioms left me hamstrung. It was the expressions, the subtleties, the shades and nuances that got me every time. 

Language is like that – it is illogical, complex, bizarre even, and we use more skills than we realise when we communicate verbally.  And the nurse-patient relationship is all about communication.

If only I had said ‘hard cheese’ instead of ‘bad luck’ to my superstitious waiter. If he’d got me wrong and thought I wanted a chunk of parmesan, at least I wouldn’t have freaked him out.


Jane Bates is an ophthalmic nurse in Hampshire

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