181212 off the cuff
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My prankster mate, Barney, has a gripe about nearly everything under the sun. Dresses that are too long; dresses too short; shredded jeans; trousers, whose cuffs drag on the floor; trousers too short, revealing the wearer’s socks. He’s refused to buy the album Thriller for precisely that reason. Socks should never be seen, he says.

When asked why, he simply shrugs. In his sometimes-parallel universe, socks-displaying is equivalent to improper etiquette. He hates newly-coined words: State-of-the-art, cutting edge, uber, amazeballs, gobsmacked. Particularly the last, because it brings back memories of an abusive teacher. “Mr Garth, who taught Chemistry, used to say exactly those words,” says Barney. “He used to ask, ‘Do you want your gob smacked? If not, keep your trap shut.’”

That, obviously, is one half of the story. The other, untold half, according to Mrs Barney, is that he (Barney), in Year 10, used to be a most disruptive force in class. He and a select gang of pupils used to make it their mission to derail every teacher’s effort to put in a day’s meaningful work. It’s a wonder and a testament to the tolerance of the system that he didn’t get expelled, she says. But Barney will shrug this off with customary nonchalance, declaring that it’s all wildly exaggerated.

“I was as good a teenager as you could expect,” he’ll say, with usual vagueness, expecting those listening to immediately grasp what he’s trying to impute. Which brings me to his new pet hate: The term ‘do you know what I mean?’ The other day, he says, a somewhat elderly lady was seated beside him on the train and the two of them got chatting.

“She went on and on about her husband, it nearly drove me crazy,” says Barney, “They met in school, fell in love, got married very young, lived happily together for 58 years, he was her best friend and ever since he died a year ago she’s never stopped missing him every minute of the day, do you know what I mean?”

How would I know what she means, he inquires. And that only gets Barney started.

“Why does everyone have to append that to every sentence they utter?” he asks. “Most of us are not morons, we can follow what they are saying. So why ask if we get what they mean?” I don’t know, I offer, “It’s probably just a turn of phrase that’s fashionable. One person uses it, other people pick it up. It’ll die out in time, be patient.”

A quick rundown

But Barney and patience were never exactly fraternal twins, the two exist on totally different coordinates on the x and y axis. “Then there are also times,” he chirps in, “when people baffle you with their expertise and expect you to be following their train of thought precisely”.

Turns out this was the case recently with Jeff, Barney’s scientist friend, who was giving him a quick rundown on H Pylori. “Everything Jeff said went totally over my head,” says Barney. “He could have been addressing me from a lectern up in the stratosphere, I didn’t understand a word, yet after every two or three sentences he’d ask, you know what I mean?”

Why didn’t you just admit that you weren’t following? I ask, and Barney gives me a look of utter incredulity like I’ve just said the most moronic thing all morning. ‘Do you know what I mean’ and ‘do you understand every word I’m saying’ are two entirely different things,’ he points out, adding, “You’ve just not been listening.”

As Mrs Barney has frequently observed, “Once Barney gets on his high horse, he gets infected with intellectual vertigo and finds it extremely difficult to dismount, do you know what I mean?”

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.