Mind the gap! This I will do. Yes, sir; yes, ma’am!
It would be a shame to drop a personal item between the platform and the train—or, God forbid, a body part. I am finding that the gaps here in London are more irregular than in Washington, D.C., and truly do require some minding. Sometimes the train is flush with the platform. Sometimes there is a sizeable step up or down. Sometimes there is a sizeable gap. And sometimes one must be particularly mindful because there is a step and a gap.
As with the subway, so with the language. Sometimes the language is perfectly intelligible to people on both sides of the Atlantic; sometimes there is a gap. For example, take the security slogan adopted by the British government and police and rail industry in 2016 and now ubiquitous in rail stations:
Upon first seeing and hearing this slogan, I knew what it was trying to convey, as the slogan is very similar to the one we have used in the U.S. since approximately 2007, and which originated in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks:
In both cases, the message is simple and easy to follow. All you have to do is nothing—unless you happen to notice something unusual (like a bag left unattended), in which case you need to tell someone in uniform, because it might contain something dangerous (like a bomb).
The British Slogan in an American Mind
But the word “sorted” in the British slogan had me alternating back and forth between confusion and (carefully stifled) rolling-on-the-ground belly-laughter. To my American mind, the word sorted is mainly applicable to underwear drawers. So there I was, innocently trying to navigate a large, crowded station and figure out which platform my train would shortly arrive at, while imagining ripped security officers behaving as follows:
OFFICER 1: “Brilliant! We will sort the bag. Would you like a cup of tea?”
ME: “Naw, dude, I’m cool.”
OFFICER 1: “Come here, mate! Help me sort this bag.”
OFFICER 2: “Right, mate. Let’s put the underwear in this pile.”
OFFICER 1: “Socks here.”
OFFICER 2: “T-shirts here. Unless they have an offensive slogan. Or representation of illegal substances.”
OFFICER 1: “T-shirts with profanity or illicit representations in this pile here.”
OFFICER 2: “Great. I’ll put the bomb here in this pile.”
OFFICER 1: “Brilliant. Do you think it might go off shortly?”
OFFICER 2: “I think we have some time to sort the trousers.”
OFFICER 1: “All right, trousers in this pile.”
OFFICER 2: “Mate, why is this sock in the underwear pile?”
OFFICER 1: “Sorry about that, mate. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a cup of tea, miss? Let me pour you a cup of tea.”
ME: “Um, no thanks. I have a train to catch. See ya!”
The British Slogan in a British Mind
I explained my confusion to a fellow attendee of the London Silent Book Club and asked what she thought of the slogan. Contrary to my interpretation, she thought it made the officers sound tough—even gangsterlike. To her British mind, the word sorted is mainly applicable to roughing people up. She put on her toughest, thickest accent and said to me,
“We’ll sort him out.”
Wow—a terrifying experience to hear her say that! I sure wouldn’t want to be (or see anyone I loved) “sorted out” by any British security officer, thank you very much!
(I would like to note here that I do not watch British television shows—or American television shows for that matter—so my ignorance of this word usage may be a mere personal problem, not any kind of commentary on international relations.)
Mind the Gap
But that’s not the actual intention of the slogan, either. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, sorted is British slang for “arranged or dealt with satisfactorily.” In other words, the slogan means exactly what I originally thought it meant. If you see something suspicious, say something about it to security officials, and they will take care of the problem in the most appropriate way.
Perhaps the most appropriate way is to put the underwear and socks in neat little piles (ha!—doubtful). Perhaps the most appropriate way is to rough someone up and teach ’em a lesson they won’t forget anytime soon (ha!—perhaps).
More likely, though, the most appropriate way is to determine whether there’s a credible threat and, if so, evacuate the area. And then, all of the British and any American travelers can exit the train station, sit around together amidst their luggage, wait for news on when the trains might resume service, and bitch to one another about how shitty life is.
Because the gap is never really very large. Sometimes there’s no gap at all. Sometimes you need to take a little step, up or down, in formality. Sometimes you need to make a mini mental leap. Sometimes you even need to step and leap at once. But you never need to be a world-class long jumper or pole vaulter.
All you need to do is mind the gap!