Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.” These words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet carry one of the “few precepts” that Polonius wants his son to follow to get along in the world. This precept is relevant to modern times, too. People in their unguarded moments sometimes say things that could bring embarrassment to them and give offence to others. The latter would then demand an apology from the speaker. There are several examples of such provocation in recent news reports. In the last few weeks, there has been a spate of allegations and calls for apology criss-crossing the state of Karnataka. The governor, the chief minister and colleagues, and opposition leaders are all caught in this tangle.
A recent report from Chennai refers to an off-the-cuff remark that created a furore among the public. In a speech at SRM University on 12 August, an official at the US consulate, Maureen Chao, remarked that after a 72-hour journey by train from Delhi to Orissa, her skin “became dirty and dark like the Tamilians”. There were protests against this remark and the chief minister wrote to the consul-general. The reply from the consulate said the official “regrets if her unfortunate remarks offended anyone, as that was certainly not her intent”.
The next incident, you would think, could hardly have happened, but it did. Former justice minister of France, Rachida Dati, was commenting during a television interview on foreign investors exploiting the finance of the nation. She said that they were “looking for returns of 20-25% at a time when fellatio is close to zero”. Dati intended to say inflation, but said fellatio. This Latinate word denotes a deviant form of sexual stimulation. The resemblance of the words fellation and inflation led to the embarrassing mix-up. BBC reported that she had to issue an apology for the egregious blunder she committed.
Using the wrong word is one way to offend others; another is to ignore the associations of the word that you are using. Even in the words you use every day, there can be hidden barbs. A British politician, Howard Flight, had to issue an unreserved apology for a remark made to a newspaper. Commenting on government’s proposal to stop child benefits for people in the higher tax brackets, he said that such measures would discourage the middle classes from breeding.
Flight was roundly criticized for making this remark; angry members of Parliament demanded that he should apologize for using the word breeding, and that his nomination to the peerage should be annulled. Breeding is a word commonly used in reference to animals. It is an informal term associated with eugenics. The word is often used in negative contexts as in “mosquitoes breed where there is stagnant water,” or “some of these schools are breeding grounds for terror”. Breeding occasionally has a positive meaning. My dictionary defines breeding as “upper class good manners seen as being passed on from one generation to another.”
In February, L.K. Advani’s letter of apology to Congress president Sonia Gandhi became a hot topic in the media and the party circles. The Bharatiya Janata Party claimed that Advani had only expressed regret, and that is not the same as tendering an apology. Questions arise here. How do you distinguish between a genuine apology and a lip-level apology? In practice, the apology gets diluted by face-saving expressions. Here are some clichés we find in apologies: “If anyone has felt insulted, I am sorry for it.” “My conscience is clear.” “My words have been taken out of context.” “I said that on the spur of the moment.” Or, in Advani’s words, “I deeply regret the distress caused to you.” In none of these is there a clear admission of wrongdoing. A genuine apology must ask for forgiveness, literally.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column
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