Monday, 6 March 2017

British Understatement

How often does Poul Anderson present British characters and does he present them with authenticity? Mainwethering of the Time Patrol might seem like a parody except that it is possible to meet guys exactly like him.

SM Stirling's Sir Nigel Loring does not disappoint. His man, John Hordle, disposes of twenty enemy by shooting four arrows:

one arrow kills a sentry in a tree;

two more arrows in quick succession pin the body to the tree so that it does not fall and warn the man's comrades;

one arrow into a hippo calf drives the hippo herd into a frenzy so that the nineteen men in their nearby punts shoot arrows at the hippos which then attack them.

"'That was inspired, Hordle,'" says Sir Nigel, shaking his hand.
-SM Stirling, The Protector's War (New York, 2006), Chapter Five, p. 146.


  1. Kaor, Paul!

    I agree, Sir Nigel's "That was inspired, Hordle" is classical British understatement! An American would have used much more effusive language. E.g., "That was terrific, Hordle," Or, "That was awesome, Hordle." (Smiles)


  2. Paul and Sean:
    It can be taken too far.

    A distressing example occurred during the Korean War when an American high officer, told by the British 29th Infantry Brigade that things were "a bit sticky," didn't know that statement was "stiff upper lip" for "outnumbered 70,000 to 4,000, situation critical." He thus ordered the unit to remain in place and continue defending the Imjin river. The brigade's casualties were quite high.

    1. See also THE PROTECTOR'S War, p. 13: "You chaps! Do hurry - we're in a spot of bother here!"

    2. Kaor, DAVID!

      Ugh, outnmumbered SEVENTY THOUSAND to 4000? However admirable the stiff upper lip attitude is, the British officer should have made sure the US general understood the actual situation. And the general should have pressed the British officer for exact figures!


    3. Paul and Sean:
      On a more appealing note (nobody getting killed), an essay by Evan S. Connell discussed Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, including Mawson's tendency to understatement about his dangerous calling.

      For instance: Mawson has fallen into a crevasse and is dangling at the end of a line attached to the sled he was pulling (he'd already had to kill and eat the dogs). He's surrounded by ice, of course, and there's an awful lot of NOTHING below him — no bottom to the crevasse in sight. If the sled, currently stuck in deep snow, works free, he'll find out the hard way HOW far down the crevasse reaches. What's more, during his fall quite a bit of loose snow managed to get inside his clothing, because he'd loosened it for ventilation while working up a sweat towing that sled. "Very chilly it was," Mawson reports.

      According to Connell, Mawson survived falling into enough crevasses that it becomes almost boring to report on all of them. "If he had dropped into another abyss and plummeted half a mile to the bottom you would expect, after six hours or so, to see him pop out of the ice, resentful of these unwarranted calamities."

      Yes. "Very chilly it was."

      Mawson also reported how one day on another expedition, a colleague twice asked him if he was busy. The SECOND time, the other fellow explained, "I am so sorry to disturb you, Mawson, but I am down a crevasse and I really don't think I can hold on much longer."

    4. Kaor, DAVID!

      If the occasions you told us about hadn't been so serious, I would have laughed at what seemed comically excessive understatement by Mawson and his colleague. Needless to say, I'm sure Mawson made an immediate dash to rescue his friend once he realized the other man truly was in danger.