Last week I mentioned to my wife, the Lady Janet, that I wanted to fly to London (as in England) to see a certain play. Before I could plead my case, Her Ladyship answered.
"Fine," she said.
I was too shocked by her reply to be happy. What did she really mean?
Did her "fine" really mean "fine?" Did she disdainfully toss her hair as she said the word? Roll her eyes? Narrow her lips?
How exactly did she say the word? After all, there are many different ways to enunciate the simple, yet powerful, word "fine."
It could be a slow and drawn out "fiiiiinnnne," implying deep and permanent suspicion.
It could be a shouted "FINE!" Meaning, of course, it is not fine; it is horrible on a scale not seen since the battle of Thermopylae or the last time you wore brown socks with your blue suit.
It could even be the dreaded whispered "fine," which, as we all know, is the deadliest "fine" of all.
While not overtly dismissing the possibility of a London trip, the whisper suggests that getting on the plane will result in enough paybacks at home to keep the in-laws at your dinner table once a week for 30 years.
If a sigh is added to "fine," you are in real trouble. The journey across the ocean will turn you into a human piñata on your return. Every backyard barbecue will now include your spouse's relatives, recently released from prison.
No longer will you be able to say, "I will not allow your Cousin Maurice and his convicted pals from Enron into my house." You will have traded two hours of theatrical joy for 40 years of social misery.
Therefore, when the Lady Janet, without a hint of another meaning in her voice, said, "fine," I was confronted by something extremely baffling: the truth. I realized she actually meant what she said!
I don't think this ability to fill a one-word answer with multiple meanings is uniquely American. For example, the French have turned the shrugged reply into such an art that I would not be surprised to see a Parisian museum celebrating the technique of the right, left, and double shoulder shrug.
Intent on preserving the most minute aspects of their culture, serious Frenchmen (are there any other kind?) feel the classic Napoleonic shrug has been lost due to the tight fit of today's jackets.
The English, while quite proficient at raised eyebrows, are not very good at shrugging. My wife and her fellow British friends, for example, appear to have little interest in trying to insert complex meanings into simple responses. When you ask them if they want chicken for dinner and they reply, "Yes" or "No," they actually mean "yes" or "no."
So now that I am convinced I really do have permission to travel 10 hours to see that play ("The Entertainer" with Robert Lindsay at the Old Vic. Anyone have tickets?), I am faced with a dilemma. I know what my wife meant, but what about me? Do I really want to go? Or do I think I want to go?
Did I say, "I want to go," with real feeling. or was I merely testing the waters? Would I rather think I want to go, meaning I think I don't want to go, unless of course I meant....
• Chuck Cohen, an advertising writer, lives in Mill Valley, Calif.