What’s in a word? | VailDaily.com

What’s in a word?

Butch Mazzuca

Editor's note: Find a cited version of this column at vaildaily.com.

English isn't the world's most-spoken language but it is universally accepted as the planet's lingua franca, i.e., the language used as the common language between speakers whose native languages are different, as well as the language anyone who wants to get ahead in life must learn. Here's why:

Britain held worldwide economic dominance during the 19th century; the U.S. assumed that role during the 20th century. As a consequence, English has become the language of business and finance. Equally important, English is also the predominant language of science, film and music.

Not so easy to learn

“Britain held worldwide economic dominance during the 19th century; the U.S. assumed that role during the 20th century. As a consequence, English has become the language of business and finance.”

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With such worldwide recognition one might think it's an easy language to learn; but as anyone who's studied English as a second language will attest, learning the language can be frustratingly difficult.

The now out-of-print "Mental Floss" magazine gave an incisive and humorous example of why English is so confusing by asking its readers to examine how a native English speaker might describe his or her morning. "When my alarm goes off, I get up, take off my pajamas, put on my clothes and set off to work."

That sentence may make perfect sense to us but what about the immigrant who is doing his or her best to learn the language? Re-read the sentence and you'll see that the key words in that sentence make little sense to those not already familiar with the English language.

Your alarm goes where? Why do you get up rather than stand up? Clothing gets put on but not off and why is something taken off but not taken on? And as for "set" and "off," neither of those words really means anything if you think about them, so what do they mean when they're together?

Even those of us who've grown up with the language find it easy to misuse many common words most of us take for granted. Words such as imply versus infer, farther versus further and lie versus lay are good examples.

The latter example is particularly interesting (lie versus lay) especially in the past tense, to wit: The past tense of lie is — you guessed it — lay: "I lay down for an hour last night." And the past tense of lay is laid: "I laid the book on the table." Good luck to the immigrant trying to keep those two straight, even with spell check.

'Crutch words'

Then, of course, we have what http://www.Dictionary.com refers to as "crutch words." These are the words we slip into sentences in order to give us time to think. Unfortunately and more often than not, crutch words do not add meaning to a statement. 

For example, words such as "actually" that are meant to signify something that exists in reality, but is most often used (or should I say misused) as a way to add punch to a statement (as in, "I actually have no idea").

Another crutch word is "literally," a word frequently used to emphasize a hyperbolic or figurative statement: "I literally fell on the floor laughing" when a more accurate description might have been, "I can't remember when I laughed so hard."

But the granddaddy of all crutch words is "like." The word like, as used in the common vernacular (It was, um, like really cold man.) is a lazy word. Linguists tell us like is interspersed in dialogue to give a speaker more time to think, but when used in everyday conversation it does little more than reveal the limitations of the speaker's vocabulary.

Quote of the day: "How often misused words generate misleading thoughts." — Herbert Spencer

Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@comcast.net.