There’s an old story of British and American politicians meeting up for some reason. I don’t remember what it was, so let’s suppose it was to plan something exciting, like the construction of Atlantropa. Anyway, they work out some plan that both sides consider incredibly wise. They decide that the plan should be brought before Parliament, so the Brit says “Let’s table the plan!” Of course, the American replies that if it’s such a great plan, it should be immediately brought before Parliament, rather than indefinitely shelved. I’m not sure if the story has a denouement, but if it does, it’s probably the start of a World War or something, all over a simple misunderstanding: “tabling” means opposite things in the two countries.
I know that’s a really boring story, but it stuck in my head when I read it as a kid (I have always been a history nerd, it seems), and it actually came to my rescue a little while ago. I was reading an article on how Bahrain wants to institute a law fining any organization that fails to produce fully grammatical Arabic copies of all their documents. I think it’s rather obvious that this is a terrible idea, especially in light of the massive amount of foreign investment in Bahrain, so I was pleased when I read in the article that the proposal was “tabled by five members from the upper house”. Good riddance, I said.
But then I started to wonder why anyone was writing an article about a proposal that was introduced and immediately put aside. And what made these five members so powerful that they alone could overrule the proposal? The answer is simple: they were Bahraini. Unlike Americans, for whom tabling a proposal means suspending discussion of it indefinitely, Bahraini, British, and just about every other sort of English uses tabling a proposal to mean introducing it. Of course a mere five legislators could introduce stupid legislation. The trouble is that it usually takes a lot more to get rid of such junk.
[I eventually found the reference to the story I was talking about up above. It’s from Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, at least if Wikipedia is to be trusted. Although in light of that “no nots at the end of a sentence” claim, I’m not sure.]