In recent years I have been helping Ultima Hora colleagues who are taking English courses at the official languages schools. My main contribution to their efforts to learn English was to explain any textbook problems that cropped up after each class. I also went over their homework with them, usually exercises on the use of verb tenses.
The tenses of verbs are my big trouble when writing in Spanish. I have never studied the language and learned it mainly by ear. But that way I never got to know the grammar and my uses of tenses is abominable. That’s why my son goes over my articles before I give them in for publication in Brisas, the weekend magazine of Ultima Hora.
The verbs in English shouldn’t be such a big headache for Spaniards because we have refined our use of the tenses and for everyday conversation we use fewer of them. But that’s not the case in Spanish. And in French the tenses are even more complex.
But over the past year or so I have been giving conversation practice to colleagues who have a working knowledge of English and want to speak it more correctly and to become more fluent. I get them to talk and correct pronunciation and misuse of words as we go along.
Sometimes I digress a bit and explain some of the many different meanings English words can have and I also tell them some of the colloquial or slang terms associated with a word. When ‘ticket’ was used the other day I went off at a wider tangent than usual.
One term we talked about was ‘just the ticket’, meaning that something is exactly right, or exactly what is needed. One explanation for this term is that it comes from the French — ‘c’est l’etiquette’.
The French word ‘l’etiquette’ means ticket, label or tag and comes from the German ‘stecken’, meaning to stick, set or fix. So ‘c’est l’etiquette’ literally translates as ‘it’s the ticket’.
But there’s another sense to ‘l’etiquette’: it also has the idea of ‘that is how it is done’ or ‘that is the correct way to do it’. In other words, just the ticket. The original etiquette was a piece of paper given to newcomers to the French royal court with written instructions on how to conduct themselves when in the presence of the king or queen. This also gives another meaning of etiquette: the conventional rules of personal behaviour in polite society.
But there was another meaning of etiquette which explains why it originally came from the German word for stick, set or fix. An etiquette was also a little note fixed to the gate of a court of law to announce, for instance, the seizure of an inheritance by order of the judge.
Sometimes the correct or fashionable way to do something was known simply as the ticket. In the mid-19th century, people said ‘that’s the ticket’ when something was being done correctly.
The term was also popular in the negative. Thackeray wrote: “Very handsome and…finely dressed — only somehow she’s not — she’s not the ticket, you see.”
Ticket comes into the language in many forms, some of them with obvious reference to slips of paper, and others of a somewhat more obscure nature. A ticket could be a licence and a ship captain’s certificate was known as his ticket. RAF and civil pilots also referred to their licences as tickets. A trade union contribution card was known as a ticket in the early 20th century and bridge players referred to cards as tickets.
Gentlemen in the 19th century frequently referred to their suits and other clothing as the ticket. In Albert Smith’s Natural History of the Gent (1847) he wrote: “And we may observe that the Gents usually speak of their get-up as the ticket — the term possibly being used in allusion to the badge which distinguished their various articles of dress when exposed for sale.”
A ticket could also be a plan, a procedure or a job in hand. Novelist Frederick Marryat, author of Mr Midshipman Easy (1841) and often called the prince of sea-story tellers, wrote in 1842: “What’s the ticket, youngster — are you to go abroad with me?”
But to be ‘on the straight ticket’ was a 1920s working class term that meant to live respectfully. It perhaps came from a police colloquialism ‘on ticket’, meaning on ticket-of-leave from prison. A late 19th century term, ‘to have the run of the ticket’, meant being able to buy on credit or allowed to run up debts. This later became ‘buying on ticket’ and was then further shortened to ‘buying on tick’.
The phrase ‘that’s the ticket for soup’ meant “You’ve got it — be off”. This use of ticket isn’t clear until you know that from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century beggars were given cards (or tickets) for immediate use in soup kitchens.
One of the many French words that have wormed their way into the English language is ‘concierge’. The word evolved from ‘comte des cierges’, or the keeper of candles. He attended to the whims of visiting noblemen at mediaeval castles.
The word eventually became ‘concierge’ and was used in the title of a high official in France who had custody of a royal palace or estate. Much later, the word was applied to the doorkeepers of blocks of flats in large French cities, most of whom were disgruntled old women. Most of us first came cross them in Simenon’s Maigret novels.
The hotel trade borrowed the word for the person on the reception desk who attends to the whims of guests. His job (it was always a man) was originally that of taking the guests’ keys when they went out and handing them back when they returned. But eventually the concierge became a confidant to whom guests turned when they needed something special — no matter what that something was.
Hotel concierges in Paris in 1929 formed a professional association and because their job was originally connected with keys, they called themselves ‘Les Clefs d’Or’, or the Golden Keys.
In the not-so-long-ago old days, the uniformed concierges at the best hotels had two crossed golden keys on the left lapel of their jackets. It’s been many a year since I’ve seen a uniformed concierge in Majorca and those now doing his work wear dark suits. And it’s been an even longer time since I’ve been in the Georges V in Paris so I don’t know if the concierges there still wear uniforms with the golden crossed keys on the left lapel.