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Police-speak: An appreciation

Laughing policemen with Mr Plod

The police have always had their own language. But their often-mocked manner of speaking to the public displays a streak of comic genius, says Charles Nevin.

As we tweet, text, abbreviate and generally truncate our way through this frantic life, it's good to know that there is at least one small area of public discourse where a relish for orotundity and a delight in stately sarcasm still flourish. I refer, of course, to those upstanding upholders of order, our police.

Others have noted the increased number of open-collared black shirts, the fleeces, the high-visibility jackets, the retreat of the helmet in favour of caps and the growing amounts of paramilitary paraphernalia.

I would rather take you to a recent Saturday evening outside Winchester railway station, where a car is waiting at traffic lights to proceed in a direction clearly marked as being for the use of buses alone.

A police car pulls up alongside. The officer at the wheel indicates that the window of the offending car should be opened. He then says: "Good evening, sir. I'm struggling to see exactly what resemblance there might be between you and a bus."

Marvellous, is it not? The mots all justes, the tone expertly calibrated between light and heavy, the emphases - "sir", "exactly" - beautifully judged, the timing of the pause between the two sentences and the elaborate punchline equal to a Les Dawson.

The squirming traffic regulation violator was, you might have guessed, your correspondent. I explained that I had been advised to take this route by a taxi driver in the station rank. He'd said it would be all right, given Winchester's implacable one-way system, even though you weren't really supposed to do it.

The officer listened politely to this faltering account. Unsurprisingly, he was unimpressed. "Never listen to a taxi driver, sir," he said, before suggesting that I would be unlikely to do it again, wouldn't I, and delivering a slap to his wrist with a meaningful glance.

Now I wouldn't like to give you the impression that I am a serial offender, but last year I had another encounter with a police officer, on the M5 motorway, along which I had been proceeding at a speed some several miles an hour above the statutory limit.

This officer gave me a firm lecture before inquiring, "Might I ask what age you are, sir?" I gave a reply not unadjacent to the statutory limit on a single carriageway. "Well, sir, might I advise you to start acting it?"

Image caption The speed for cars proceeding along a single carriageway in an orderly fashion

Discretion, mercy, wisdom, wit - but, above all, fine examples of the power of this often-mocked manner of speaking to allow respect and consent between state and citizen, and to give both sides a bit of a laugh at the same time.

It's tempting to say that this is a technique unique to the good old British bobby, but we should mention that it's not always applied when it might be (and is a little tricky in the middle of, say, a riot), and that the services have always had a good line in it, too.

The late King Hussein of Jordan, for example, when a cadet at Sandhurst, was addressed by a sergeant major during drill as "Mr Hussein, sir, you 'orrible little King".

Nor is it confined to Britain, as anyone who has visited the United States will know (thank you, that officer in Las Vegas, for the pertinent question-and-answer session on why a flashing sign reading "Don't Walk" means that you shouldn't walk).

Image caption Not a cute doggy, sir, but a federal agent

A list of phrases used by US officers in court demonstrates the origins of a way of talking which has come to be used in all areas of police work. "I observed the subject fleeing on foot from the location," runs one, rather than, "He ran away".

My favoured American example, though, demonstrates the slightly more direct approach in the US: a Briton passing through LA international airport made the mistake of going to pat a sniffer dog and was loudly admonished by its handler: "Do not touch the federal agent!"

Charles Nevin is a journalist, humorist and author.

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