I got an entertaining email a couple of days ago, purporting to be from a chap I’ve met a couple of times who’s an artist and intellectual. Let’s call him Harry Fothersgill-Smythe (no reason; it’s just a nice name). So Harry’s supposed email to me began by saying, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t inform you about my holiday’ – which was odd to begin with, because I hardly know him really. Why would Harry keep me abreast of his travel plans? I’ve never once thought of contacting him to say I was off again to the Isle of Wight. But, of course, very quickly I found out what was going on:
‘We are presently in Madrid Spain on short vacation and as i write to you now... its unbelievable me and my family are stuck here, got mugged at gun point, thanking Almighty God for save keeping my passport.., i really need your assistance quickly?’
Here is the one true benefit of being sensitively attuned to illiteracy, I reckon: being able to spot a fraud like this right at the get-go, and then start listing the howlers. Would Harry have written ‘Madrid Spain’, for example? No, I believe he would write ‘Madrid’, because he would assume most people in his address book could confidently identify in which major European country Madrid usually resides. Would he use a lower-case ‘I’ throughout? Not likely; he is in his fifties, and he had a public-school education. Would he use the construction, ‘me and my family’? I think not, for the same reason. Would he thank Almighty God like this for the ‘save keeping’ (meaning ‘safe-keeping’) of his passport? Unlikely. And here’s the clincher: would he place a question mark at the end of a statement?
You will be relieved to hear that I didn’t send Harry 2,200 Euros, as requested in block capitals later in the email. But I’m wondering now whether I should offer my services to the police, because in a largely illiterate world, being able to say, ‘This person would write hope you’re well and not hope your well’ is a bit like being able to sniff explosives at a hundred metres, or see through reinforced concrete. In another 20 years it will qualify as a super-power. A little while ago, there was a murder case in which the teenaged murderer used the victim’s mobile phone for a couple of weeks afterwards, sending text messages as a way of suggesting the victim was still alive. But being illiterate (and not being aware of it, of course), the murderer misspelled words that his victim would not have misspelled, so his ploy failed, and I for one was very pleased about that.
Fritz Lang’s 1936 film Fury daringly turned on a similar mistake. Did you ever see it? In Fury, Spencer Tracy plays an ill-educated man who always says ‘momentum’ when he means ‘memento’ (his girlfriend, played by Sylvia Sidney, attempts to set him straight, but it doesn’t go in). Wrongly arrested for kidnapping a child, Tracy is the target of a violent mob attack, which results in arson, and a lot of rioters being eventually charged with his murder. But is Tracy really dead? His body wasn’t found after the fire. An anonymous letter is sent to Sidney, containing a melted ring belonging to Tracy, saying she might want this as ‘a momentum’! She thus knows for certain that Tracy is still alive!
No one would get away with writing a story like that nowadays. To point out that someone has misused a word would be regarded not only as incomprehensibly elitist but tantamount to mental cruelty. Words mean whatever you want them to mean, OK? Nevertheless, people do give themselves away by grammatical blind-spots and word confusion. There are people who always say ‘infer’ when they mean ‘imply’ – others would rather die than make such a mistake. Oh well.
Why are films such as Fury never shown on TV any more, though? That’s what I’d like to know. Nowadays the definition of a film classic on television seems to be Meet the Parents.
This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of Saga Magazine. For more wise and witty writing like this,