Friday, April 24, 2009

Our Crazy Language

By Richard Lederer

English is the most widely used language in the history of our planet. One in every seven can speak it. More than half the world’s books and three-quarters of international mail are written in English. Of all the languages, English has the largest vocabulary---perhaps as many as two million words---and indeed, it is the repository of one of the noblest bodies of literature. Nonetheless let’s face it, English is a crazy language. There are no eggs in eggplant, pines in pineapple or hams in hamburger. Sweetmeats are candy while sweetbreads (which aren’t sweet) are meat.

We take English for granted but when we explore its paradoxes, we find that ‘quicksand’ works slowly, ‘boxing rings’ are square, ‘public bathrooms’ have no baths in them and ‘guinea pigs’ are neither pigs nor are they from Guinea.

And why is it that a writer writes but a finger doesn’t fing, a grocer doesn’t groce, a humdinger doesn’t hum-ding nor a hammer ham? And if the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn’t the plural of booth be beeth? We have one goose and two geese so shouldn’t the plural of moose should be meese! One index, two indices so if you have more than one Kleenex, shouldn’t they be two Kleenices?

Doesn’t it seem loopy that you can make amends but you can’t just make one amend and you can comb through the annals of history but not just one annal? If you have ‘a bunch of odds and ends’ and you get rid of all but one, which one do you have? And what would you call it?

If a teacher taught- why isn’t it true that a preacher proght? If a horsehair mat is made from the hair of horses and a camel’s-hair coat is made from the hair of camels, from what is a mohair coat made from?

If a vegetarian eats vegetables then what does a humanitarian eat? In the past- tense of words, if you wrote a letter, perhaps you had also bote your tongue…

Sometimes I wonder if the people that speak English should be committed to ‘the asylum for the verbally insane’. In what other language do people drive on parkways and park on driveways, recite at plays and play at recitals, ship by truck, send cargo (car-go) by ship and have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can ‘a slim chance’ and ‘a fat chance’, ‘overlook’ and ‘oversee’, ‘quite a lot’ and ‘quite a few’ be synonyms but yet, ‘a wise man’ and ‘a wise guy be antonyms (opposites)? Did you ever notice that we talk about certain things only when they’re absent?

We refer to cars as horse-less carriages but have you ever seen a horse-ful carriage? And unplanned events are referred to as hapless so planned ones must be hapful… Have you ever seen a strapful gown, met a ‘sung hero’, experienced quited love, met someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable?

And where are the people that really are ‘spring chickens’ or would actually ‘hurt a fly’? I meet people everyday who can ‘cut the mustard’ and I can touch with a ten foot pole---but I can’t refer to them in English.

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language that refers to a house burning up as it ‘burning down’, we fill out forms by filling them ‘in’ and when alarm clocks ‘go off’, they go on…

English was invented by people and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which of course doesn’t ‘race’ at all). And that is why, when the stars come ‘out’ at night they become visible, when I wind-up my watch it keeps ‘running’ but when I wind-up this talk, it ends!

PS: Why doesn't "buick" rhyme with "quick"?

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