BBC Radio Four’s, ‘More or Less’, discusses numbers. I pricked up my ears at this week’s program as one of the subjects was close to my heart.
While I was an Inspector for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the English Midlands, among the people I found most irksome was my Regional Superintendent. The RSPCA employed about five or six of these uniformed officials, one for each region of the country, and their job was to ensure the Inspectors in their area carried out the work correctly, and to assist in dealing with any work-related problems an Inspector might have.
In those days, the Society owned the Inspectors’ houses, vehicles, telephones, and almost everything else. Regional Superintendent ‘Mick’ Hartley believed it owned the Inspector, as well.
He was a pompous, bellicose, individual, in good shape for his fifty or so years, and resplendent in immaculate uniform with military-style boots you could see your face in. Thick black hair was heavily greased above equally bushy eyebrows; a slightly bulbous nose topped the inevitable well-groomed moustache, slightly yellowed from a lifetime of nicotine addiction.
He’d turn up at the ‘Society house’ about four or five times a year to check the Inspector’s books were in order, vehicle properly maintained, and stuff like that. Once a year, he’d perform the annual ‘house check’, which meant him scrutinizing the property inside and out to ensure it was all in good repair and the Inspector wasn’t sub-letting one of the bedrooms to a family from Pakistan, or growing marijuana in the attic.
It was a dreadful invasion of privacy for the Inspector and his family. Hartley gave very little notice, telephoning the night before, or sometimes leaving it until the morning of his visit, which resulted in the poor wife rushing around vainly attempting to make everything look perfect before he arrived.
My wife worked full time, so usually I was alone in the house when he arrived. We didn’t get on. I’ve always had a down on authority. It’s not that I’m against rules, it’s more to do with the type of individuals who invariably end up enforcing them.
It’s been my experience that rules are made for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men. Sadly, those who enforce them tend to be of the former category. Regional Superintendent ‘Mick’ Hartley was no exception.
He worked, he proudly declared, “……by the book”. There was no word for human error in Hartley’s dictionary. If a job wasn’t done strictly according to the rules, then it wasn’t done right and he expected, “……my Inspectors to give one hundred and twenty-five percent.”
It was at this point I made the mistake of pointing out he was wrong.
It’s always been something of an irritant to me, you see. Not that I’m a mathematical genius, or anything. In fact, my old maths master probably went to his grave early trying to teach me calculus. Nevertheless, he did manage to instill in me the basic principle that one hundred percent is a total amount, and consequently there can never be anymore.
So, when I pointed out to Hartley that there was no way he could expect one hundred and twenty-five percent from me, and not even one hundred percent given that I had to spend a third of my time sleeping, another hour or two eating, and some occasional off-duty recreation may be nice, he began to turn a delicate shade of puce.
By the time I’d informed him the best I could manage was probably around sixty percent, if he were lucky, apoplexy was becoming a distinct possibility.
Following that visit, the report he sent to RSPCA Headquarters probably didn’t portray me in a terribly good light. I wasn’t too concerned, though, as fate was already steering me towards pastures new, and I was aware my career in animal welfare had run its course.
It wasn’t long after that fateful encounter with Regional Superintendent Hartley that personal matters caused me to leave the RSPCA.
As years went by the irritating misuse of percentage terms escalated throughout British and American society, egged on in part by brain-numbingly stupid reality TV shows displaying barely educated youths, of both sexes, desperately attempting to sell their limited attributes as potential company directors. Most would be incapable of even managing a piss-up in a brewery, but virtually all were eager to give, “One hundred and twenty percent”, “Two hundred percent”, or even in one instance, I believe, “A thousand percent,” to impress the rich idiot with the electrified hairstyle who pretended he might eventually employ them.
Was I the only human on the planet screaming with frustration at the cathode ray tube in the living room corner? Did no-one else care that mathematical precision was being so grossly and carelessly eroded?
So it seemed, until recently, while listening to Tim Hartford’s ‘More or Less’ on BBC Radio Four’s website, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Susie Dent, described as a ‘writer and language expert’ was so incensed with the misuse of the term, she made quite a study of the phenomenon. She sees it as part of a more general ‘bigging up’ of the language – like use of the terms ‘super’-hero, or ‘mega’-cool.
There’s one point, however, on which Ms Dent and I wholeheartedly disagree.
From her research, she suggests the ‘bigging-up’ of the hundred percent began with ice-skating stars Torville and Dean in the 1980’s, when they attributed their success to giving their all, “one hundred and one percent”.
Ms Dent, you’re wrong. I can’t definitively pinpoint when it all began, but Regional Superintendent ‘Mick’ Hartley was way ahead of Torville and Dean.
He was up to one hundred and twenty-five percent as early as the 1970’s.
 “The death of 100%” BBC, April 27th 2009
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