Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Did You Just Say What I Think You Said?

I love the English language, even if there are times that I can't understand why parts of it are the way they are. Thanks to Stanford for posting this from one of my favorite authors. (

Richard Lederer

English is weird.

In the rigid expressions that wear tonal grooves in the record of our
language, beck can appear only with call, cranny with nook, hue with
cry, main with might, fettle only with fine, aback with taken,
caboodle with kit, and spic and span only with each other. Why must
all shrifts be short, all lucre filthy, all bystanders innocent, and
all bedfellows strange? I'm convinced that some shrifts are lengthy
and that some lucre is squeaky clean, and I've certainly met guilty
bystanders and perfectly normal bedfellows.

Why is it that only swoops are fell? Sure, the verbivorous William
Shakespeare invented the expression "one fell swoop," but why can't
strokes, swings, acts, and the like also be fell? Why are we allowed
to vent our spleens but never our kidneys or livers? Why must it be
only our minds that are boggled and never our eyes or our hearts? Why
can't eyes and jars be ajar, as well as doors? Why must aspersions
always be cast and never hurled or lobbed?

Doesn't it seem just a little wifty that we can make amends but never
just one amend; that no matter how carefully we comb through the
annals of history, we can never discover just one annal; that we can
never pull a shenanigan, be in a doldrum, eat an egg Benedict, or get
a jitter, a willy, a delirium tremen, or a heebie-jeebie; and that,
sifting through the wreckage of a disaster, we can never find just one

Indeed, this whole business of plurals that don't have matching
singulars reminds me to ask this burning question, one that has
puzzled scholars for decades: If you have a bunch of odds and ends and
you get rid of or sell off all but one of them, what do you call that
doohickey with which you're left?

What do you make of the fact that we can talk about certain things and
ideas only when they are absent? Once they appear, our blessed English
doesn't allow us to describe them. Have you ever seen a horseful
carriage or a strapful gown? Have you ever run into someone who was
combobulated, sheveled, gruntled, chalant, plussed, ruly, gainly,
maculate, pecunious, or peccable? Have you ever met a sung hero or
experienced requited love? I know people who are no spring chickens,
but where, pray tell, are the people who are spring chickens? Where
are the people who actually would hurt a fly? All the time I meet
people who are great shakes, who can cut the mustard, who can fight
City Hall, who are my cup of tea, and whom I would touch with a
ten-foot pole, but I can't talk about them in English -- and that is a
laughing matter.

If the truth be told, all languages are a little crazy. As Walt
Whitman might proclaim, they contradict themselves. That's because
language is invented, not discovered, by boys and girls and men and
women, not computers. As such, language reflects the creative and
fearful asymmetry of the human race, which, of course, isn't really a
race at all. That's why six, seven, eight, and nine change to sixty,
seventy, eighty, and ninety, but two, three, four, and five do not
become twoty, threety, fourty, and fivety. That's why first degree
murder is more serious than third degree murder but a third degree
burn is more serious than a first degree burn. That's why we can turn
lights off and on but not out and in. That's why we wear a pair of
pants but, except on ery cold days, not a pair of shirts. That's why
we can open up the floor, climb the walls, raise the roof, pick up the
house, and bring down the house.

In his essay "The Awful German Language," Mark Twain spoofs the
confusion engendered by German gender by translating literally from a
conversation in a German Sunday school book: "Gretchen. Wilhelm, where
is the turnip? Wilhelm. She has gone to the kitchen. Gretchen. Where
is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden? Wilhelm. It has gone
to the opera." Twain continues: "A tree is male, its buds are female,
its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are
female -- tomcats included."

Still, you have to marvel at the unique lunacy of the English
language, in which your house can simultaneously burn up and burn
down, in which you fill in a form by filling out a form, in which you
add up a column of figures by adding them down, in which your alarm
clock goes off by going on, in which you are inoculated for measles by
being inoculated against measles, and in which you first chop a tree
down -- and then you chop it up.

[(c) 1996 Richard Lederer]

1 comment:

BrooklynWolf said...

Heh. I like Richard Lederer. I have several of his books at home.

What do you make of the fact that we can talk about certain things and ideas only when they are absent?

That actually worked to my favor once. I was playing Scrabble with Eeees and I decided to play the word "ruth." I figured that if someone could be ruthless, they could also be ruth. She challenged me (we play by the rules -- if you lose a challenge then you lose a turn) and I pulled out our Scrabble dictionary. Sure enough, it was there, and I got to take another turn. :)

The Wolf