Vail Daily column: The lighter side of the English language
In last week’s commentary, I explained how the command and use of the English language was in large part the primary determinant of success in the United States.
But English isn’t the easiest language to master. In fact, my father-in-law who read the commentary responded by emailing some material to illustrate just how quirky English really is. So here’s a look at the lighter side of the English language.
How does someone just learning the language understand that the bandage was wound around the wound, that the farm was used to produce produce, the dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse, and that we must polish the Polish furniture or tell someone that in order to lead they must first get the lead out?
Now to really get cute, we could say the soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert, or we could advise someone that there is no time like the present to present the present.
In English, there is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; nor is there apple or pine in a pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England nor were French fries invented in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.
Did you know that bawd, concubine, coquette, courtesan, harlot, shrew, termagant, wench and witch at one time applied to both sexes? Yet today these terms are the exclusive domain of women.
Much of our language is chauvinistic because women have for so long been second-class citizens, which is why courtesan, coquette, concubine et al shifted in meaning to refer to women only sometime in the late 1600s. Similar manifestations hold true with certain derogatory words in usage today.
In pre-modern times, the aristocracy and the nobles lived in cities, which is why many disparaging terms and words received their meaning by ascribing certain qualities to non-city people. Villain comes from rustic, heathen from country-dweller and boor originally meant a farmer. Even the word bumpkin when preceded by country has now become redundant
We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. And only in English do we have noses that run and feet that smell while we park our car on the driveway and drive our car on the parkway.
How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise-guy, are opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language when a house can burn up as it burns down; where one can fill in a form by filling it out and where an alarm goes off by going on. And why is it that cough, though, rough and through don’t rhyme, but pony and bologna do?
At the top of the commentary I wrote that English was a quirky language. Well perhaps fascinating is a better term, to wit: There’s a two-letter English word that has more meanings than well … you can make-up your own mind regarding the word up.
We all understand up, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake up? At a meeting, why does a topic come up? Why do we speak up and why are politicians up for re-election and why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?
We call up our friends, we brighten up a room and polish up the silver. We warm up the leftovers and clean up the kitchen. We lock up the house and fix up the old car. At other times the word has a special meaning when people stir up trouble, line up for tickets, work up an appetite, and think up excuses.
To be dressed is one thing, but we dress up for special occasions. A drain must be opened up because it is stopped up. And the local grocer opens up his store in the morning and then closes it up at night. All in all, we seem to be pretty mixed-up about the word up.
A thousand years from now, historians and archaeologists will discover terms and phrases that will surely leave them puzzled, e.g. did the man take the bus, or did the bus take the man? We have a fascinating language, and as English becomes more prevalent all around the world, our language will expand even faster as it incorporates words and phrases from the four corners of the globe — if a globe can indeed have four corners.
Quote of the day: “Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language.”—H. Jackson Brown
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.