Phrase of the day: can’t get the staff!

We’ve had quite a hectic week this week. We’re putting the finishing touches to a high school book we’ve been working on; we’ve been catching up with our email backlog; and on Monday we were inspected as part of our bid to get official accreditation for our summer school programme. Now, official accreditation is crucially important for a small set-up like ours because without it we’re unable to issue the kind of invitation letters that non-EU students need when applying for short-term study visas. We’d been preparing for the inspection for a good few weeks, as it’s a rather bureaucratic process and there was a lot of paperwork that we needed to get ready. In the middle of the meeting, and at the request of the inspector, my colleague Andrew produced a document he’d finished the night before outlining the ways in which we communicate with potential students. Noticing that it hadn’t been spellchecked and contained a few glaring errors, I pointed this out, rolled my eyes and announced that you just can’t get the staff these days!

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I should explain at this stage that this is most definitely not because I have any doubts about Andrew’s competence or skills. In fact, quite the opposite is true. He’s one of the most competent people I know and I can’t imagine not working together with him. Instead, the phrase is one that’s often jokingly used when little things go wrong – even when no-one is at fault. As with many phrases in everyday use here in England, its roots lie in our awareness of the class system. In the old days, when members of the landed gentry – wealthy land owners who didn’t need to work for a living, and who lived in grand country homes –  were entertaining friends and were upset that the knives and forks were laid out wrongly or that the soup wasn’t served at the right temperature, they would (at least in the popular imagination) complain about how hard it was to find decent domestic staff . . . and then presumably go downstairs to where the servants lived and fire a few people! This idea has mutated into the joke we now crack when things go wrong to suggest that the root cause of the problem was the fact that the person responsible wasn’t well trained – even when that person is actually you!

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England being England, and the class system still being very much alive and well, the phrase is of course still used by the kind of more traditional right-wing newspapers that cling on to the past. Indeed, a recent Daily Mail article about what life is like for 21st century servants used it in its headline. There was also a recent TV series called You Can’t Get The Staff, which claimed to provide a “behind-the-scenes look at how the cream of society handle their domestic staff”. However, the phrase is far more frequently used the kind of friendly joking way described above.

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And, of course, when someone on Facebook points out the typos – usually spelling mistakes I’ve failed to spot – in this post, I shall simply shrug my shoulders and comment Oh well! You just can’t the staff anymore!

Want to know about the relationship between English and British culture? try our ADVANCED LANGUAGE AND CULTURE course this summer.

  • Can you think of a time recently when you could’ve said You just can’t get the staff?
  • Do you ever have to get lots of paperwork ready? What for?
  • How often do you have really hectic days / weeks? Why?
  • Have you ever failed to spot any glaring errors in something you’ve written?
  • Would you say the class system is alive and well in your country?
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