I was reviewing the hilarious and terrifying British English to other translation guide

and I would be fascinated to know something.

How has the use of brave in "That's a very brave proposal" come about, seemingly corrupted from "That's an insane proposal".

enter image description here

  • The worst possible comment on a proposed ministerial course of action by a PPS on 'Yes, Minister' was "Minister, what a courageous decision!" Minister Hacker would immediately retrench. Sep 15 '21 at 10:19
  • 1
    Whoever was asking about irony and sarcasm, well, here's a prime example of the latter. The word is not "corrupted" (which is a misnomer by the way).
    – Lambie
    Sep 15 '21 at 14:44

The use of brave in "That's a very brave proposal" is exactly what you'd expect — showing no fear of dangerous or difficult things.

In context, the 'proposal' is deemed so outrageous (be it expensive/illegal/daft/impossible, etc.) that the proposer is very bravely facing ridicule/arrest/being fired in putting it forward. Therefore the speaker thinks the proposer is "insane" to do so.

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    It's also often used in fashion to mean anything from dressing adventurously to looking weird, with fear of ridicule the implicit contrast.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 15 '21 at 13:36

This is a great example of some different possibilities of what 'meaning' means.

Usually we think of meaning as 'word for word combined with syntax'. But context can play a big part in secondary implications. If you say 'That mouse is big' it may mean the mouse is bigger than other mice I've seen, or it may mean that it is bigger than an ant. Also, concepts may be correlated like height and weight, but they mean denotationally two separate things (two separate things you can measure differently in the world). And further, we're not robots and we can think through the implications of things which produce secondary effects like sarcasm, irony, literalness, hyperbole, etc., etc. and etc.

The chart you found, 'Anglo-EU translation guide' is intended to be humorous, showing how wildly different the same utterance can be understood by different people.

Some examples extracted as text from the image:

What the British say What the British mean What others understand
That's not bad. That's good. That's poor.
Quite good. A bit disappointing. Quite good.
I almost agree. I don't agree at all. He's not far from agreement.
I hear what you say. I disagree and do not want to discuss it further. He accepts my point of view.
That is a very brave proposal. You are insane. He thinks I have courage.

The third column tends to be more literal or optimistic of the first. But the British column seems contradictory.

The British (or at least one common stereotypical media representation of them) is that they tend to understatement or softening possibly hurtful things out of politeness. This chart takes it to an extreme (or, if comments are any indication, perfectly ordinary intentions by Brits). So for a statement in the third column that has a literal meaning or hopeful meaning in the third column, a British speaker might have intended something darker in the second.

Which is all to say there is no actual semantic drift of these terms - 'brave' and 'insane' have no etymological or semantic connection, they have two entirely different meanings - brave means courageous or overcoming adversity or being risky, and insane means illogical or out of control or contradictory. But under some social concerns, one persons trash is another's treasure, and an action that is insane (likely to end in hurting oneself without benefit to others) may very well be interpreted as brave (selfless intending to help others at ones own expense). The denotational meanings do not overlap but some implications of bravery may be seen as insane.

  • You have copies the first row in your abstract table down incorrectly. The original table has the British equivalent of "that's not bad" as "that's good" and the other interpretation as "that's poor". When you have transcribed the table entries you've inverted these which makes us seem even more oblique than we actually are. I refer you to The Beatles Sgt Pepper album and the song "a day in the life" with several lines similar to "and it's all right, which is to say I think it's not too bad"
    – BoldBen
    Sep 15 '21 at 16:02
  • @BoldBen fixed.
    – Mitch
    Sep 15 '21 at 16:09
  • Right I think this gets to the root of my question which is I was thinking that in this context Brave and Insane are on the same (subjective & revisable) spectrum, i.e. that they are mutually exclusive. But from this answer it's highlighting that they are not connected.
    – AJP
    Sep 15 '21 at 19:20

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