Mind your language

Why nothing ever comes ‘for free’

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

‘It’s not as nice as it looks,’ said my husband, not leaving time to look it in the mouth before wolfing down the lemon and sultana Danish that I had thoughtfully bought him, reduced on account of its age. ‘Every day in this store,’ the till at Marks & Spencer’s had told me in a tone indicating that I might be interested, ‘someone gets their shopping for free.’ Yes, I thought, it must be that bloke that exits pursued by the security man.

I thought other things too, since I am afflicted by what the French call déformation professionnelle and tend to sub-edit other people’s utterances – those of machines with even less tolerance. For a start, we can’t allow for free. It’s either for nothing or free of charge. Then store is an Americanism for shop, and I don’t much care for their as a singular pronoun. I think that Danish pastry was also originally American (we had Chelsea buns), certainly the abbreviation Danish. See how I suffer for other people’s speech crimes.


The funny thing, though, was that all the other talking tills in the checkout Babel said ‘every week’ not ‘every day’. It is true that I have never seen anyone suddenly surprised by free shopping, but I admit that I don’t quite know what the scene would look like. Punching the air, perhaps, if the basket held a case of non-vintage Veuve Clicquot at £46 a bot. Bafflement if it was a pair of lemon and sultana Danishes on their sell-by date.

What really grates is that to qualify for this ephemeral or hebdomadal lottery, you must belong to something called Sparks, entitling you to a store card and other glorious favours. Without wanting to lump an M&S card together with the system of social credit imposed by the Chinese Communist party, in which you are banned from buying a fast train ticket if you are detected crossing the road at the wrong place, I don’t have much truck with store cards. But to call it Sparksseems like a corporate takeover of a disrespectful nickname, short for Marks & Sparks. My grandmother might refer to Marks; no one called it Sparks until the brand people got to work.

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