October's column for Surrey Life magazine, which is about a word, or the lack of it...
I think it’s time for a confessional.
Sometimes the right thing to say doesn’t arrive in our heads until we are half way through a sentence. We’ve all paused mid-flow, waiting for the perfect adjective to trampoline up from the memory deeps and present itself for dispatch. Most of the time we get there. Occasionally, it goes horribly wrong.
When the word we’re groping for doesn’t arrive, sparkling conversation can quickly descend into a series of panic-stricken eyebrow movements and non-sequiturs.
“It’s the, er, you know…”
“It’s on the tip of my tongue!”
“I think I know what you mean. As I was saying...”
Sometimes an interlocutor will spare everyone’s blushes by supplying the mot juste. Often they can’t, to mutual embarrassment. This is bad enough in real life, but on the radio, speaking in coherent sentences is the essence of the job.
Yes there’s a lot of reading, research, button-pushing and other stuff you need to do, but topping the list is trying to make sure what comes out of your mouth isn’t a load of incomprehensible tosh.
The other day I managed to surprise myself.
It’s one thing to have the right word dangling in your subconscious, tantalisingly out of reach. It’s another thing to attempt a formulation which may not even be part of the language.
I needed to describe a person who was taking on the penultimate leg of a relay. I also needed to describe the person running the leg before them. Live on air, with thousands of people listening, I picked up the microphone and started to do so. Bad move.
To use “third-to-last”, didn’t seem right. The person in question wasn’t losing a race. The last person in the relay wasn’t in “last place”. So what word should I use?
I had no idea. I realised, as a self-created linguistic tidal wave of doom swept towards me, I had asked my brain to dredge up a word I had never used before. Or heard before. Or even seen written down. It was perfectly possible this was because the word I had set myself up to use, live on the BBC, did not actually exist.
In that moment of tongue-tied confusion my mind convulsed, my eyes widened and my mouth flapped open and shut like a particularly vacant goldfish. Every millisecond became an hour. It felt like a slow-motion car crash, my brain screaming “Nooooooooo!!!!” as the familiar brick wall of total humiliation approached.
I’ve since listened back to it and all you hear is a brief giggle with the admission I had fallen into a beartrap of my own making. Thankfully a colleague was on hand to graciously admit she had no idea what the word for “the-one-before-the-penultimate” is either. The whole thing was over in half a second, and no lasting damage was done.
That’s the thing about radio. You make a mistake. You apologise. You feel bad. You learn. You move on.
Antepenultimate. I know that now.
November's edition of Surrey Life is on sale now, at £3.15 a snip. You can find some of my previous columns below:
September 2012 - on my BBC microphone
August 2012 - on the Olympics
July 2012 - on being on holiday with three small children
June 2012 - on joining a gym
May 2012 - on making live radio
April 2012 - on being ill