English is a Crazy Language, part 3
by Richard Lederer
This is the third installment of four in iStudentCity's publication of Richard Lederer's essay "English is a Crazy Language," the first chapter of his book Crazy English. Don't worry if you see a phrase you don't know, just look it up in a dictionary. If you enjoy this article, visit Richard Lederer's web site.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
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 spick 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 just one jitter, a willy, a delirium tremen, or a heebie-jeebie. Why, sifting through the wreckage of a disaster, can we never find just one smithereen?
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, who would lift a finger to help, who would give you the time of day, 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 we wear a pair of pants but, except on very cold days, not a pair of shirts. That's why men wear a bathing suit and bathing trunks at the same time. That's why brassiere is singular but panties is plural. That's why there's a team in Toronto called the Maple Leafs and another in Minnesota called the Timberwolves.
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 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 you can turn a light on and you can turn a light off and you can turn a light out, but you can't turn a light in; in which the sun comes up and goes down, but prices go up and come down -- a gloriously wiggy tongue in which your house can simultaneously burn up and burn down and your car can slow up and slow down, in which you fill in a form by filling out a form, in which your alarm clock goes off by going on, in which you are inoculated for measles by being inoculated against measles, in which you add up a column of figures by adding them down, and in which you first chop a tree down -- and then you chop it up.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Richard Lederer is the best-selling author of Crazy English, and he has penned more than a dozen other books about the English language. 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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