Living languages constantly change. New words and phrases enter a language and old ones are forgotten. Often adaptations are gradual but occasionally a new phrase, like WTF (see the above Google NGram), quickly burst into a language and even infiltrate other languages.

When observing the development of my first language – American English – I am always intrigued when I encounter a phrase that has become part of the common vernacular since I left the States 30 plus years ago. I especially pay attention when I, as an ex pat, am no longer certain of the phrase’s meaning or intention.

One such phrase I have difficulty in deciphering is when a speaker predicates the start of a statement with the words: “I need you to understand that …” or its cousin “What I need you to understand is …” Whenever I hear one of these phrases I am immediately put on guard. Usage would seem to indicate that the speaker is about to communicate information which is of personal importance to them and/or controversial and that they:

  1. assume that I already have an opinion regarding this information.
  2. believe to have prior knowledge of this assumed opinion.
  3. hold this assumed opinion to be incorrect.
  4. by uttering this phrase now have carte blanche to hold a monologue correcting me of my presumed opinion.

I am led to this interpretation because I often see it as the start to long ranting blog posts: What I need you to understand about my anxiety, sexuality, feelings, obesity, …

I am confused, however, when I see the phrase used as below.

The above example is not congruent with my understanding. Here my interpretation is that phrase is meant to indicate that the question is ludicrous. I equate it with a verbal eye roll. Is there something I am missing in my interpretation?

Any other expats out there with phrases or words in their first language that confuse them? Leave a comment.

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