Pissed-off Toff


in Language Watch

In this introductory essay on the topic of language, Pissed-off Toff reveals his detestation of the word ‘busy’ … 

My late aunt, an aristocrat to the core of her being, was one of the finest people who ever lived, and I miss her. I don’t think that she ever had a selfish or uncharitable thought. However, not long before she died, she told me that if there was one word in the English language that she just couldn’t bear, it was ‘busy’. As in “I can’t talk to you / come and see you / help you with that / accept your invitation. I’m busy.”

It is indeed an awful word, and one that manages to be puritanical, self-righteous and downright rude all at the same time. A word for our age, one might say; and the point that my aunt was making is that when people say that they are too ‘busy’ to do some nice thing that you suggest, what they mean is that they have other things that they would rather be doing and that are more important to them. Not only, but the word carries a suggestion of self-righteousness, too. “I am virtuous and hard-working,” it means, “and what I do is frightfully important.”

Although she did not spell it out in those terms, my aunt was quite right. There is, however, another aspect of it that she was not refering to, namely that the word ‘busy’ carries a further meaning which is not only boorish and self-righteous, but insulting as well. As a good-for-nothing layabout, I have learned that “I’m busy” is even more pregnant with unwelcome inuendo than my aunt realised.

The full meaning of this expression which so characterises the modern world is as follows: “I am far too important and hard-working to think about whatever it is you are talking about. And not only am I virtuous, hard-working and frightfully important, but you are not. Because if you were as virtuous, hard-working and altogether as marvellous as I am, you would not be wasting the time of a busy person such as myself, but you would be in the office like I am, earning lots and lots of money and doing something that matters and generally feeling pleased with yourself.”

“I’m busy” is therefore basically an insult, and it should be treated as such. So next time someone tells you, with infuriating self-righteousness, that he (or – as often as not – she) is too ‘busy’ to meet up or to come to your trivial drinks party, and that he (or she) cannot possibly consider spending his (or her) valuable time doing whatever unimportant thing it is that you are suggesting and that you have time to think of only because you are a useless underachiever with no place in the globalised world of busy workers and hungry consumers … well then, reply accordingly.

By which I mean take the wind out of their sails. The correct reply, therefore, to any mention of the word ‘busy’ is not “Oh, I’m so sorry, grovel grovel, I’ll try you some other time.” It is “Busy, are you? So am I, now that you remind me. I’ve got a bottle of champagne to open and a Chopin prelude to play. Must rush!”

Nor am a joking. Because in my experience, the people who tell me they are ‘busy’ – and this always implies criticism of one’s own un-busy-ness and general uselessness – are invariably very privileged, and their being ‘busy’ consists mainly in making even more money than they already have; or, in the case of the women, of going shopping or doing some other not-very-important thing to fill the empty hours.

The truth is, therefore, that when people tell you that they are ‘busy’, they are doing what they want to do, and please will you go away. Which is fine. But does that make them virtuous as well? I don’t think so.

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