Surprising Item in the Bagging Area: The Importance of Word Choice

It was busy in the supermarket today, so after a hectic trip on the least fun dodgems I have ever been on, it was time to pay for my stuff and leave.  However, given its aforementioned status as busy, all the checkouts were full.  Which meant I was obliged to use the self -service monstrosities, and this made me sad.

I prefer dealing with a human being, you see.  Sometimes that isn’t necessarily an improvement, such as when a self-righteous smug so and so phones you up about your recent road traffic accident, and tries to correct you when you tell him that you have not been in a road traffic accident as driver, passenger or cargo.  But at least I got to call that person a stupid head before hanging up on him (What I said to him may have been slightly more offensive than ‘Stupid head’.  And by slightly I mean significantly.  And by may, I mean definitely.  The point is that yelling at a self-service checkout is less satisfying).

Sorry, I digress.  I was running my purchases through the checkout, with only one issue, when I heard one of the other self-service tills announce to anyone that was listening

“Surprising item in the bagging area.”

My first mental response was to go to add the following statement in my mind

“Remove the surprising item in the bagging area.  You have 20 seconds to comply.”

Imaging the ED209 working in the supermarket amused me somewhat, though I suspect no one else was reminded of Robocop.  It got me thinking.  Why was the item surprising?  Was there a live squid writhing in the bagging area?  Did a small wooden clown pop out of a box, like a jack in the – well, you know what I mean?

On the previous visits where I have braved the self service, I have been warned

“Unexpected item in the bagging area.”

This always made more sense to me.  You stick something in your bag without scanning (due to forgetfulness, obviously) and the scales in the bagging area detect it – it is unexpected, and you can correct it.  Having the till tell you that it is surprised by your action seems a bit passive aggressive to me.

Anyway, there is a point to all this, and it is about language and its use.  The words you choose when you speak or write set the terms of the conversation, or to put it another way, the genre of the narrative.  (I realise genre is more than just word choice – take a leap of faith with me).

I once was asked to give feedback on a piece of writing.   (I won’t name the piece here, to preserve writer anonymity).  It was named after a malevolent spirit, which told me it was horror.  I then read the piece, and was a bit disappointed at the relaxed nature of the description, despite reported fatality, and by the end of it was not sure whether the piece was supposed to be horror or black comedy.  Parts of it read like a bunch of guys on a stag party, rather than an intense pursuit through isolated parts by an inhuman foe.

Don’t get me wrong, both would have been acceptable choices for a story – though I would personally have preferred the horror.  However, the choice of language veered between horror and not horror, which betrayed the writer, because it was an otherwise decent idea.  What I am getting at is, know what you are trying to achieve with your writing, or your speaking.  And use language appropriate to the outcome.

I suspect a new version of Robocop with ED209 supervising passive aggressive automated tills would likely be a comedy, rather than action.  It might also be more entertaining than the remake.

All the best

John

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