are you winning?

During the summer before I started at University I worked a stint in my Dad’s factory. I worked in the stores, alongside a chap who was a year older than me, and who I knew from school. Every day we were given bills of materials, and our task was to check that the stores had everything on the list. We worked in a large open storage space with a thoroughfare down the middle. Factory workers and office workers used the area as a short-cut across the site.

At one point, sometime in my first few days, a chap came wandering throught our area en route to the factory. He cheerily acknowledged us with “Are you winning?” We took this to be a reference to our in-hand work list and replied in vague, but positive, terms. He paid no attention to the reply, but simply continued cheerily on his way. The next day a different chap said exactly the same, and again ignored our reply. And during the ensuing week we gradually noticed that almost everyone did the same.

We worked hard to find a response that seemed acceptable, but to no avail. But we did notice that it only seemed to be the old-timers who did it. So at last we hit on the idea of getting in first – let them tell us what’s acceptable by confronting them with their own conundrum. The next suitably aged person who set fot in our area was greeted with an immediate chorus of “Are you winning?” from both of us. The chap tipped his head wistfully on one side and replied “Are you winning?” At that moment we realised: “Are you winning?” means “Hello”.

(We guessed that sometime in the dim and distant past one of the factory hands must have occasionally used the phrase to enquire as to the general stress levels of his colleagues. And then over the years it had spread through the factory and gradually lost any meaning.)

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