In which Mr Bamboo relaxes


To celebrate the mid term exams, the weather turned wet yesterday afternoon and has shown no sign of letting up since until about half an hour ago when the deluge eased sufficiently for me to head home without getting as saturated as I had going or coming to school in the past twenty-four hours. The weekend, as I may have noted, was rather humid and by Sunday evening, the smell of smoke in the air, which I took to be from stubble burning, was noticeable. Monday was even hazier than Sunday had been and eventually a windy cold front arrived, washing away the smog and drowning the uneven roads and occasional cycle lanes in deep puddles.

At times like these, I have to wonder whether the Chinese word for drainage (排水 páishuǐ; or 旅水 lǚshuǐ; or 排水法 páishuǐ fǎ; or 排水设备 páishuǐ shèbèi; or 排水系统 páishuǐ xìtǒng; or 排出的水 páichūde shuǐ[1]) has quite different connotations from its English counterpart. Downpipes from gutters spew water all over the ground without any attempt to direct the water somewhere. (Perhaps northern China might be a good place to send it.) The surfacing of roads and footpaths seems to have been done without considering the consequences of inclement weather.[2]

However, as a consequence of the exams, I have, of course, been doing some marking. I got through the PAL 2 English exam yesterday which, if it’s an indication of anything, suggests that most of the class should consider the extended curriculum. I marked a few of the AS exam papers this afternoon and was dishing out A’s as if I was giving them away.

And now, a slight digression. The year is 1984 (I think) and I’m doing German in my second year at university. I remember our German teacher telling us about teaching English in Germany and how easy it was after seeing the same error so many times to begin to doubt yourself. I’m beginning to get that way with relax which, as any EFL teacher here knows, is regularly misused, being treated almost without exception as a reflexive verb when I’d use it intransitively.

I have no idea where this comes from, but it’s so common that I can only suspect it’s either how the verb is used in Chinese or some peculiar feature of the Chinglish students get taught in schools. I have to admit that relax is a good candidate for a verb which might indeed be used reflexively. It can be reflexive in Italian (rilasciarsi, rilassarsi); in French ([se] relâcher, [se] détendre); and in German (sich lokkern; sich entspannen). Latin and Greek, on the other hand, appear to be like English in that the equivalent of the intransitive form is not a reflexive verb. And, for that matter, Chinese appears to be the same (although appearances can be deceptive).

But having seen relax used reflexively so many times, it’s beginning to seem quite natural and I’m beginning to think that the error lies with me. I even wondered whether it’s a feature of American English. The crude stats from Google are

relax myself 39,600
relax yourself 277,000 (including a UK website with that very name)
relax himself 60,200
relax herself 54,000 (which leads to adult sites and an EFL quiz from the Beeb)
relax ourselves 106,000
relax themselves 21,000

But this information is of limited value because I don’t know who wrote these phrases or whether they might be in a sentence such as “I like to relax myself with a glass of wine” where myself is an emphatic reflexive.[3] A lot of instances might come from Chinese students on EFL websites. I don’t know whether the predominance of 2nd person sg/pl and 1st person pl forms is significant.

It’s not just relax that’s bothering me. There’s been more than one occasion of late when I’ve wondered whether my correction to some solecism is actually just as un-English as what I’m trying to correct. It seems that the shepherd may be becoming like the sheep.

1. 排水设备 and 排水系统 seem to refer to drainage systems; 排水法 might as well. Once again, it seems that Chinese has at least half a dozen words for everything.
2. Lest it appears that I’m deriding the quality of road construction in this country, I should note that attempts to drain roads in wet weather in 18th century England by placing a cant on them led to coaches toppling over where such a method of drainage was attempted.
3. Probably I’d say “I myself etc.” If I say the sentence out loud, there’d have to be noticeable pauses either side of myself.


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