Phrase of the day: not on speaking terms

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Over the weekend I saw a friend of mine who last year had some similar experiences to me as he’d fallen out with his parents about Brexit. Jon is married to a Spanish national and like countless others across the country, they’ve had a very stressful time of late as the government has so far refused to guarantee the right to remain of EU nationals who moved here legally once Article 50 is triggered and Britain begins the long, slow, painful process of separation from the European Union. Given the fact that his wife is foreign, he was shocked and appalled when both his parents decided to vote Leave last year and he had a great big row with them both about it all. Something very similar happened to me as my father chose to ignore the fact that his son is married to an immigrant and has mixed-race kids and campaigned for a Leave vote on behalf of the anti-immigration far-right party UKIP.

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We chatted about how things were now and I mentioned that I’d more or less managed to patch things up with my dad after basically making it clear that the only way we could really get on was to agree not to discuss politics in any way, shape or form. So far, this seems to be working for me, but Jon’s relationship with his parents remains bad, and he told me that they’re still not on speaking terms. In other words, they haven’t spoken since last summer, a fact that saddens him immensely, but that he can’t see a way round at the moment.

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As we were chatting, my mind drifted off and I realised that we often describe relationships between people using to be on . . . terms, so for instance when I used to work in a university here in London, I used to know the dean by sight, but not really to talk to. Whenever we’d pass on the stairs or in a corridor, I’d nod my head at him and he’d nod back, even though I suspect he had no idea who I actually was. I was once asked by a colleague if I know the dean and replied Well, not really. I mean, we’re on nodding terms, but we’ve never actually spoken. In the same way, I’m on nodding terms with half the people in my street. We wave or nod at each other when we pass in the street, but it doesn’t go any deeper than that.

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I was once surprised to hear a different colleague referring to the dean at the time by his first name – Roland. In England, especially in a large corporation or set-up like a big university, this is a sign of familiarity; it suggests you’re quite close to this person and may even have had social contact outside of the work environment. Ooh! Get you! we laughed. On first-name terms with the dean. Dinner dates every Friday, is it!

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Finally, when couples divorce, they may go through a really bitter, acrimonious divorce and end up not talking to each other at all and only communicating via their respective lawyers. If they’re luckier, they may manage to have a fairly amicable divorce and remain on good terms afterwards. It’s rare, but not impossible.

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Why not do one of our summer school courses.

  • Is there anyone you’re not on speaking terms with at the moment? Why? What happened?
  • When was the last time you had a great big row with someone? What was it about? Have you patched things up since then?
  • Are there people you live near or work with that you know by sight, but not really to talk to?
  • Are you on first-name terms with any of your bosses? Is this common where you work?
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