Health-chatter matters

John Hale

Prince William and Prince Harry

We talk, socially, about health for the sake of our social health.

I learnt the following ditty at my father’s knee. He had learnt it in some school recitation-fest long ago. Imagine two Londoners, gents in bowler hats, who meet on a City street. They are imaginatively named Smith and Jones.

Says Jones: Good morning, Smith.

Smith replies: Good morning, Jones.

Jones: How oft we meet upon these stones.

Smith: You’re looking well.

Jones: And so are you!

Smith: You don’t say so?

Jones: I do, I do.

Smith: Well, how’s your mother?

Jones: Pray don’t quiz. I fear she has the rheumatiz.

Smith; That’s very queer—she had the same complaint last year.

Jones: Well, I must go.

Smith: And so must I.

Jones: Goodbye Smith.

Smith: Oh Jones, goodbye.

This scintillating exchange captures many truths about health-talk; not the medical or para-medical kind, but how health matters penetrate our talk—our social lives when the professionals are not around.

beakSmith and Jones use health to meet and greet. Health-related Speech-act Number One.

Two: They don’t discuss each other’s health, though, but how they look; their appearance, physique, their social selves on display. Their social wellness.

Three: this wellness is confirmed, or enhanced, by the exchange. Is this how to keep your pecker up? A pecker isn’t what you think, but a metaphorical beak.

Four: They meet “oft,” so why talk at all, but they do. We do. Dogs size each other up, and wag tails. We talk about the weather, sport, the garden, children—and health.

Five: S and J do go on a bit. I do, I do. Pure phatic communion. This demonstrates the value of corroboration, and extension of greeting, for an acceptable duration. When this doesn’t work, greetings depreciate, must end or change.

Six: Smith “asks after” Mrs Jones senior. Curiosity? Concern? Wants to prolong the conversation a little (it’s only 30 words so far)?

Seven: Jones wrinkles his brow: the subject introduces pain into this hitherto jaunty, upbuilding health-talk. Pray don’t… = I beseech you. Don’t quiz: Don’t interrogate me, on such a touchy subject as my dear mother’s aches and pain.

walking on cobblestonesEight: Smith is filled with concern and alarm, also pleasure at finding a new and graver topic, thus advancing the thought; speaks now with real or simulated intellectual fascination. To have rheumatism once is bad, to have it again is jolly bad. (My knees and knuckles agree). But yes, ain’t that the truth: it does come back. Perhaps 100 years ago arthritis and bursitis etc may have been lumped together by the general public as the rheumatiz. For sure, we talk about familiar ailments as much as sudden afflictions; only we talk about them differently.

Nine: From the receiving end, Jones’ end, Smith is actually being polite, sympathetic, but a bit thick. Has he strayed from pleasantries, which fortify, and oil the social wheels, into the prolonged misery (of Mrs J)?

At all events,  Jones Junior has had enough. “Well, I must go.” Our two heroes revert to the level of civility, and politely detach themselves from each other.

Imagine, if you will, as I used to do when this recitation was wheeled out at Christmas gatherings, their shining leather shoes shod with steel clip-clopping along the “stones” in opposite directions; fading away along Threadneedle Street. Did this utterly banal ditty, with its facile dopey rhymes, once have a life in the music hall? I hope so. As a child, I loved its symmetries. As for its subject-matter (if it merits such a serious name) I knew even back then that it was the stuff of social life; casual greeting, family talk at a get-together, news, gossip … all that negligible casual world of social lubrication. Yes, health-chatter matters.


Since retiring from the Otago University English Department, Dr John Hale has divided his energy between research on John Milton (six books to date), and the more pressing deadlines of a weekly Otago Daily Times WordWays column, with occasional teaching for the U3A.

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