Saturday, July 14, 2007

Poisoned gifts

I don't know whether there's an expression in colloquial English for the French notion of a so-called poisoned gift. In a nutshell, it's a gift with unexpected negative consequences for the receiver. For example, suppose you intend to purchase an iPhone. Then, in a spirit of pure kindness, you decide to give your old portable phone to your cousin, who is most grateful for your generosity. But alas, its battery heats up, catches fire and burns down your cousin's house. [I hasten to admit that I'm so totally ignorant in the portable phone field that I don't know whether such a thing could really happen.] In such a situation, it could be said that you gave your cousin a poisoned gift.

The Australian legal system has just invented the concept of a novel kind of poisoned gift whose dire consequences affect, not the receiver, but the giver. After days and days of police interrogation, the Gold Coast doctor Mohammed Haneef has been charged with "recklessness" as a consequence of having once given a portable telephone to his cousin over in the UK, because this distant cousin has since been arrested on a charge of terrorism. Media reports concerning the accusation brought against the kind cousin in Australia include the following fuzzy comment: "Prosecutors conceded the offense was perhaps at the margins but by no means insignificant, with a maximum penalty of 15 years' jail." I like the elegant expression "at the margins", but they don't say at the margins of what. Injustice? Stupidity? Confusion?

Today, when I heard a French TV journalist introducing this subject, I pricked up my ears, because I was intrigued by the challenge of translating into meaningful French the expression "reckless support of terrorism". In fact, I had underestimated the journalist's linguistic skills. Without blinking an eyelid, he used the adjective inconsidéré, which means "inconsiderate". The dictionary tells me that this means "thoughtlessly causing hurt or inconvenience to others". So, we have a third kind of poisoned gift. It's neither the receiver nor the giver who gets hurt as a consequence of the gift, but... others!

In an earlier post entitled Destruction of computer files [display], I gave advice concerning ways of getting rid of an old computer. Most of those methods would work, too, for destroying an old phone, to avoid the risk of being tempted to give it to your cousin. Ideally, we should hope that manufacturers will soon get around to offering us some kind of high-tech device—let's call it a device terminator—that can instantly destroy things such as old computers and phones. They would get transformed instantly into a tiny invisible puff of dust, which not even the smartest Aussie detectives could ever detect and exploit. The only problem is that this gadget might work just as well on automobiles. Imagine that it got turned on inadvertently when you were driving along the highway. You might suddenly find yourself sliding along the macadam on your buttocks.

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