Ian McMillan: A fine point for older men in caps

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When I was a lad I was always saying “what?” when I didn’t quite catch what people said, and it drove my mother Doo Lally, in fact I would go so far as to say that it drove her beyond Doo Lally to the unstable country of Doo Lally Pip, a place you wouldn’t want to go to under any circumstances. “Don’t say what, say pardon!” she would say, “You’re driving me Doo Lally Pip!” Once, in a moment of madness I asked her where Doo Lally Pip was and if it was anywhere near Goole Lally Pip and she showed me precisely where it was with the aid of the back of her hand. My mother’s hand-based justice must have made a great impression on me because since then I’ve always tried to say “pardon”? when the temptation is just to say “what?”, but recently I’ve noticed the re-emergence of a couple of Yorkshire variations on those two interrogatives (as we linguists call them) that I’d like to share with you.

The first of them is “what seh?” which is a version of “what did you say?” filleted to its essence, and there’s a specific way of uttering it for the full impact. The emphasis should be on the second word, so it’s “what seh?” rather than “what seh?” A fine point, I know, but these things are important. It’s normally shouted by older men in caps in crowded country pubs on Sunday lunchtimes as their mates are asking them if they’ve time for another one before they go home. “One more half, Albert?” “What seh?” “A half?” “What seh?” “Oh, never mind, I’ll buy you one anyway!”

Contained in that small exchange is the essential conundrum at the heart of “what seh?” which is that person who is apparently hard of hearing isn’t really hard of hearing at all, they just want to prolong the conversation. Old Albert doesn’t want to go home, frankly, to start making his own dinner in a cheerless and lonely kitchen, and his “what seh?” really means “shall we stay a bit longer in this nice place?”

My dad used to say “beg pardon?” which was in itself a shrinking of the phrase “I beg your pardon?” but several times over the last few weeks I’ve heard older men (a bit like Albert) say “pan?”, meaning “pardon?” Actually, it’s one of those words that difficult to write down because there’s a tiny gap between the “a” and the “n” so it’s almost “padn” but not quite. It’s somewhere between “pan” and “padn”; I’ll let you imagine that, and maybe you can have a go at saying it to yourself in the privacy of your own home. Don’t say it in the chip shop or people will start shouting at you. “Pan?” is different to “what seh?” because it has an air of the absent-minded about it; the person who says “pan?” isn’t really listening, they’re thinking about the football results or what they’re going to wear for their trip to the market; they don’t want to ignore you because that would be impolite so they say “pan?” just to keep you on the conversational back-burner, just to keep you on the end of the wordy line like a fisherman playing with a trout.

If you’re kind, you’ll repeat what you said to keep the “pan?”person happy.

If you’re cruel you’ll say nothing until they turn from what’s occupying their thoughts and give you the attention you deserve.

And I’ve no space to investigate “come ageeeean?”.