Decoding the phrases in everyday talk

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

Maturity is almost an indefinable term. But perhaps we approach maturity when we have learned how to decode catch-phrases and stock answers.

For instance, when a friend fixes you up with a blind date, your first question may be, “Is she pretty?”

If your friend hesitates and says, “She has a good personality,” you can bet your bottom dollar she has never won a beauty contest.

Someone once suggested that when you ask a public speaker a question and you receive the reply, “That’s a good question,” you can mark it down that your question is probably better than the answer you’re about to get.

“I’m glad you asked that,” is probably a coded response that is better translated, “I could knock your block off for asking that, especially in front of all these people.”

“Advice is cheap, but let me …” is guaranteed assurance you are going to get a truckload of unwanted guidance that’s going to cost you more than your time in listening to it. And it’s probably going to be worth just about what you paid for it — nothing!

And beware of, “It’s none of my business, but…” that serves as a preamble to uninvited invasions of your business, complete with more than a few “oughts” and “shoulds.”

Then there’s the coy, “Not to be mean, but …” or “I don’t mean this in a bad way, but …” or my kids’ favorite, “Not to be bratty, but …” Those introductory remarks set the stage for comments sure to be catty, negative and probably self-serving.

Mealtime offers an abundance of decoding scenarios.

“Would you have some potatoes?” means “Hurry up and serve yourself and pass them my way.”

“Hmmm that pie looks good,” means, “Can I have a bite?”

“Sure would be good with ice cream,” means, “Get the ice cream out of the freezer and put a scoop on my piece.”

And in our family, “I want a small piece,” means you better guard your portion, since a wandering fork will soon be searching for just a few more bites.

But my favorite decoding story is the one my father tells about John Wesley, that candid and up-front-with-it-all founder of the Methodist Church.

One day a lady approached him and asked, “May I speak frankly?”

He encouraged her to do so.

She said, “Your tie is too long.”

“Do you have a pair of scissors in your bag?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Then,” Wesley said, “Cut my tie off where you think it ought to be.”

And she did.

“Now,” he asked, “may I be permitted a word?”

She agreed.

“Your tongue is too long,” he said. “Will you extend to me the same courtesy and give me your scissors?”

And then there’s the finale that’s not quite the finale. When a speaker says, near the end of his talk, “And now, finally…” don’t get excited. What he really means is, “Finally, but not immediately.”

But writers are different. We have editors who simply delete.

No decoding required.