By Sally Asante
[Directory blurb: More of the burning questions raised by our crazy English language.]
In what other language do they call the third hand on the clock the second hand?
Why do they call them apartments when they’re all together?
Why do we call them buildings when they’re already built? Why do we call them paintings when they’re already painted?
In stadiums, why are the seats called stands, when they’re made for sitting?
Why it is called a TV set when you get only one?
Why are movie coming attractions called trailers when they come before the main feature?
Why do we call a ship that pushes other ships a tugboat?
Why do we call that useful basket with the top on it a hamper?
Why is your finger called a thumb but your big toe doesn’t get a name of its own?
Why do they call food servers waiters, when it’s the customers who do the waiting?
Why is the person to whom you entrust your hard-earned life savings called a broker?
Why is phonetic not spelled phonetically? Why is it so hard to remember how to spell mnemonic? Why doesn’t onomatopoeia sound like what it is? Why is the word abbreviation so long? Why is diminutive so undiminutive? Why does the word monosyllabic consist of five syllables? Why is there no synonym for synonym or thesaurus? And why, pray tell, does lisp have an s in it?
English is crazy.
If adults commit adultery, do infants commit infantry? If olive oil is made from olives, corn oil from corn, and vegetable oil from vegetables, what do they make baby oil from? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian consume? If a television is a TV, shouldn’t a telephone be a TP? If a pronoun replaces a noun, does a proverb replace a verb? If pro and con are opposites, is congress the opposite of progress?
If we conceive a conception and receive at a reception, why don’t we grieve a greption and believe a beleption? If a firefighter fights fire, what does a freedom fighter fight? If a person who plays the piano called a pianist, shouldn’t a person who drives a race car be called a racist? If a horsehair mat is made from the hair of horses, from what is a mohair coat made?
If we get seasick on the sea, airsick in the air, and carsick in a car, then why don’t we get homesick in our home? And speaking of the home, why aren’t homework and housework the same thing?
Why can you call a woman a mouse but not a rat—a kitten but not a cat? Why is it that a woman can be a vision, but not a sight—unless your eyes hurt? Then she can be “a sight for sore eyes.”
A writer is someone who writes, and a stinger is something that stings. But fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce, hammers don’t ham, humdingers don’t humding, ushers don’t ush, and haberdashers do not haberdash.
If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn’t the plural of booth be beeth? One goose, two geese—so one moose, two meese? One index, two indices—one Kleenex, two Kleenices? If people ring a bell today and rang a bell yesterday, why don’t we say that they flang a ball? If they wrote a letter, perhaps they also bote their tongue. If the teacher taught, why isn’t it also true that the preacher praught? Why is it that the sun shone yesterday while I shined my shoes, that I treaded water and then trod on the beach, and that I flew out to see a World Series game in which my favorite player flied out?
Why do we watch television but see a movie. Why are we on television but in a movie?
A slim chance and a fat chance are the same, as are a caregiver and a caretaker, a bad licking and a good licking, and “What’s going on?” and “What’s coming off?” But a wise man and a wise guy are opposites. How can sharp speech and blunt speech be the same and quite a lot and quite a few the same, while overlook and oversee are opposites? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell the next?
If button and unbutton and tie and untie are opposites, why are loosen and unloosen and ravel and unravel the same? If bad is the opposite of good, hard the opposite of soft, and up the opposite of down, why are badly and goodly, hardly and softly, and upright and downright not opposing pairs? If harmless actions are the opposite of harmful actions, why are shameful and shameless behavior the same and pricey objects less expensive than priceless ones? If appropriate and inappropriate remarks and passable and impassable mountain trails are opposites, why are flammable and inflammable materials, heritable and inheritable property, and passive and impassive people the same? How can valuable objects be less valuable than invaluable ones? If uplift is the same as lift up, why are upset and set up opposite in meaning? Why are pertinent and impertinent, canny and uncanny, and famous and infamous neither opposites nor the same? How can raise and raze and reckless and wreckless be opposites when the words in each pair contain the same sound?
Why is it that when the sun or the moon or the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible; that when I clip a coupon from a newspaper, I separate it, but when I clip a coupon to a newspaper, I fasten it; and that when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I shall end it?
English is a crazy language.
How can expressions like “I’m mad about my flat,” “No football coaches allowed,” “I’ll come by in the morning and knock you up,” and “Keep your pecker up” convey such different messages in two countries that purport to speak the same English?
How can it be easier to assent than to dissent but harder to ascend than to descend? Why is it that a man with hair on his head has more hair than a man with hairs on his head; that if you decide to be bad forever, you choose to be bad for good; and that if you choose to wear only your left shoe, then your left one is right and your right one is left? Right?
(Reprinted with permission.)
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