Department of Etymological Nonsense

“Pause and Affect”
by Simon Hodgson


They think we’re snobs. We think they’re stupid. We’re the UK, they’re the US. Countries united by two World Wars, one World Cup qualifying group and one shared language. Shared? Maybe not. Pause a moment to consider. No, scratch that and consider pauses.

Because even in pausing do the two countries diverge. Take Um, for instance. Roughly translated, it’s the hesitation of a Brit who thinks you’ve said something foolish, but is too polite to say so. Or the girl in the elevator (um, lift) who spots spinach between your teeth and nearly points it out, then decides to scratch her nose instead. There’s an old-fashioned decency to Um, a chintzy courtesy that enables it to win Pause of the Year perennially. Um’s acceptance speeches, of course, are beautifully tentative, with that clumsy blend of self-deprecation and earnestness which have made British films so admired in Hollywood.

Americans are desperate to colonise Um, they long to rebrand it and unleash its latent star power. Um, however, remains dispassionately British. We in the Sceptred Isle cherish it for its iconoclasm. Um claims political neutrality, although we have always suspected it of a gently liberal bias, an indigo, Bloomsbury tinge. It conjures up the Arts & Crafts movement, cottony dresses, early bicycles, heavy books. Um is cogitative, knowledgable without being worldly. It suggests the ability to doubt, to consider. Um is uncool but unruffled. It had a trust fund long before anyone thought to call it that. Um is educated, but wears its learning lightly.

Ivy Leaguers and other American Anglophiles covet Um. They pine in brownstone buildings, yearning for Um’s redbrick respectability, its essential tweediness. “Ummm,” say college professors in wingtipped shoes, as they delay saying something for which they’ve already written the script. They think it sounds intellectual, the sound of the brain’s gears grinding. Blue sky planners, the techies that only ever think outside the box, love the word’s dulcet intelligence, its whispered rumination. “Um sounds,” they say dreamily, “like a thought process, like the box itself being opened.”

For a long time it was rumored that Bill Gates himself was negotiating with Um – he’d earmarked it as the ideal sound to accompany Microsoft’s egg-timer icon. Gates never publically revealed why negotiations failed, or even that there had been talks, but afterwards Silicon Valley wags reported that Um was unimpressed with the company’s overvalued stock options, as well as Gates’ insistence on wearing sneakers to meetings. Elsewhere in California, of course, people just adore this pause’s timeless qualities. They venerate its longevity, the way an Um can run and run, resonating down the ages. In San Francisco, it is said, some claim a link between Um and Om, the Buddhist sound of silence which closes all circles of meditation.

All across the United States, Americans love Um for its suggestion of Process. After all, they reason, what is Um other than an echo of Hum, that mellifluous heartbeat of machines? Factories hum, fanbelts, fridges, ovens, waterpumps, air conditioning units from Spokane to Scranton all softly shudder with the same metronomic murmur. Despite the plaudits and the pleading, this pause is unmoved by applause. ‘Too kind, too kind,’ says Um, which remains ideologically agnostic, though many suspect it still favours the UK on genealogical grounds. Its aloofness has a velvety feline grace, and though the British may claim Um for the Queen’s English, no one will ever truly own it.

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