Has anyone seen my etchings?

Posted by on February 21, 2011

Dan Clayton talked about the language of lovers last week, and how people let their speech style converge towards the speech style of someone they want to establish a relationship with. But this can be a lengthy and tortuous procedure, involving protracted conversation. Among younger people throughout the ages there has often been a need for an instant, more immediately result-driven ploy, manifesting itself in the cultural phenomenon known as the chat-up line.

There are whole books and web pages devoted to the art of the chat-up line (just try googling ‘best chat-up lines‘). If you follow the advice you find there, you’ll end up saying things like:

What’s a nice girl like you doing in a seedy place like this?
Is there a rainbow here somewhere? Because you’re the treasure I’ve been looking for.
Are you tired? You’ve been running through my mind all day.

But of course they’re not serious. These are archetypal lines which no one in their right mind would try and use. Another not entirely serious one is: “Where have you been all my life?”, which should definitely not be said to anyone who is noticeably younger (as the response “Not even born for the first half of it” would be something of a terminal put-down).

Part of the mating ritual is finding something to say to a potential partner without being too explicit. One of the oldest, and most clichéd lines is “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?”. This dates back to the 1890s (if we can believe Wikipedia) and is an example of veiled language. Steven Pinker, in this video, makes the interesting point that a lot of what we say is veiled and not explicit. He uses this line as an example of veiled language in a seduction context, having outlined the categories of bribery, polite requests, seduction, solicitations, and threats. He gives examples of how each of these speech acts can be carried out in a linguistically indirect way. In this case, the seemingly innocent invitation to come and view some artistic etchings really means “come into my room where I hope you’ll agree to have sex with me”.

But there are reasons, he argues, why such propositions are better delivered in veiled language, even though the speaker’s intent is normally clear. By using indirect language, then if the proposal is rebuffed, the two can maintain the fiction of friendship. But if a direct proposition is made and rebuffed, then they could no longer maintain that fiction. There’s more to it than that, obviously, so watch the video to get the full argument. It’s worth seeing, too, for the creative use of animation to support what might otherwise be a dry and unillustrated lecture.

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