English is the most widely spoken language in the history of our planet, used in some way by at least one out of every seven human beings around the globe. Half of the world's books are written in English, and the majority of international telephone calls are made in English. Sixty percent of the world's radio programs are beamed in English, and more than seventy percent of international mail is written and addressed in English. Eighty percent of all computer texts, including all web sites, are stored in English.
English has acquired the largest vocabulary of all the world's languages, perhaps as many as two million words, and has generated one of the noblest bodies of literature in the annals of the human race. Nonetheless, it is now time to face the fact that English is a crazy language -- the most loopy and wiggy of all tongues.
Why -- in our crazy language -- can your nose run and your feet smell?
Language is like the air we breathe. It's invisible, inescapable, indispensable, and we take it for granted. But, when we take the time to step back and listen to the sounds that escape from the holes in people's faces and to explore the paradoxes and vagaries of English, we find that hot dogs can be cold, darkrooms can be lit, homework can be done in school, nightmares can take place in broad daylight while morning sickness and daydreaming can take place at night, tomboys are girls and midwives can be men, hours -- especially happy hours and rush hours -- often last longer than sixty minutes, quicksand works very slowly, boxing rings are square, silverware and glasses can be made of plastic and tablecloths of paper, most telephones are dialed by being punched (or pushed?), and most bathrooms don't have any baths in them. In fact, a dog can go to the bathroom under a tree -- no bath, no room; it's still going to the bathroom. And doesn't it seem a little bizarre that we go to the bathroom in order to go to the bathroom?
Why is it that a woman can man a station but a man can't woman one, that a man can father a movement but a woman can't mother one, and that a king rules a kingdom but a queen doesn't rule a queendom? How did all those Renaissance men reproduce when there don't seem to have been any Renaissance women?
Sometimes you have to believe that all English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane:
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 it is called a TV set when you get only one?
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.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Richard Lederer has penned more than 2,000 books and articles about language and humor, including his bestselling Crazy English and his current book, The Bride of Anguished English, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Described on his web site as "Attila the Pun" and "Conan the Grammarian," Lederer enjoys sharing his love of English with the world. He volunteers as the vice president of The Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature (S.P.E.L.L.), and travels around speaking to everyone from elementary school students to teaching organizations.
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