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English is a Crazy Language, part 3
by Richard Lederer

This is the final installment of Richard Lederer's essay "English is a Crazy Language," the first chapter of his book Crazy English. If you enjoy this article, visit Richard Lederer's web site.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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? Small wonder that we English users are constantly standing meaning on its head. Let's look at a number of familiar English words and phrases that turn out to mean the opposite or something very different from what we think they mean:

A waiter. Why do they call those food servers waiters, when it's the customers who do the waiting?

I could care less. I couldn't care less is the clearer, more accurate version. Why do so many people delete the negative from this statement? Because they are afraid that the n't...less combination will make a double negative, which is a no-no.

I really miss not seeing you. Whenever people say this to me, I feel like responding, "All right, I'll leave!" Here speakers throw in a gratuitous negative, not, even though I really miss seeing you is what they want to say.

The movie kept me literally glued to my seat. The chances of our buttocks being literally epoxied to a seat are about as small as the chances of our literally rolling in the aisles while watching a funny movie or literally drowning in tears while watching a sad one. We actually mean The movie kept me figuratively glued to my seat -- but who needs figuratively, anyway? A non-stop flight. Never get on one of these. You'll never get down.

A near miss. A near miss is, in reality, a collision. A close call is actually a near hit.

My idea fell between the cracks. If something fell between the cracks, didn't it land smack on the planks or the concrete? Shouldn't that be my idea fell into the cracks (or between the boards)?

A hot water heater. Who heats hot water? This is similar to garbage disposal. Actually, the stuff isn't garbage until after you dispose of it.

A hot cup of coffee. Here again the English language gets us in hot water. Who cares if the cup is hot? Surely we mean a cup of hot coffee.

Doughnut holes. Aren't those little treats really doughnut balls? The holes are what's left in the original doughnut. (And if a candy cane is shaped like a cane, why isn't a doughnut shaped like a nut?)

I want to have my cake and eat it too. Shouldn't this timeworn cliché be I want to eat my cake and have it too? Isn't the logical sequence that one hopes to eat the cake and then still possess it?

A one-night stand. So who's standing? Similarly, to sleep with someone. Who's sleeping?

I'll follow you to the ends of the earth. Let the word go out to the four corners of the earth that ever since Columbus we have known that the earth doesn't have any ends.

It's neither here nor there. Then where is it?

Extraordinary. If extra-fine means "even finer than fine" and extra-large "even larger than large," why doesn't extraordinary mean "even more ordinary than ordinary"?

The first century B.C. These hundred years occurred much longer ago than people imagined. What we call the first century B.C. was, in fact the last century B.C.

Daylight saving time. Not a single second of daylight is saved by this ploy.

The announcement was made by a nameless official. Just about everyone has a name, even officials. Surely what is meant is "The announcement was made by an unnamed official."

Preplan, preboard, preheat, and prerecord. Aren't people who do this simply planning, boarding, heating, and recording? Who needs the pretentious prefix? I have even seen shows "prerecorded before a live audience," certainly preferable to prerecording before a dead audience.

Pull up a chair. We don't really pull a chair up; we pull it along the ground. We don't pick up the phone; we pick up the receiver. And we don't really throw up; we throw out.

Put on your shoes and socks. This is an exceedingly difficult maneuver. Most of us put on our socks first, then our shoes.

A hit-and-run play. If you know your baseball, you know that the sequence constitutes "a run-and-hit play."

The bus goes back and forth between the terminal and the airport. Again we find mass confusion about the order of events. You have to go forth before you can go back.

I got caught in one of the biggest traffic bottlenecks of the year. The bigger the bottleneck, the more freely the contents of the bottle flow through it. To be true to the metaphor, we should say, I got caught in one of the smallest traffic bottlenecks of the year.

Underwater and underground. Things that we claim are underwater and underground are obviously surrounded by, not under the water and ground.

I lucked out. To luck out sounds as if you're out of luck. Don't you mean I lucked in?

Because we speakers and writers of English seem to have our heads screwed on backwards, we constantly misperceive our bodies, often saying just the opposite of what we mean:

Watch your head. I keep seeing this sign on low doorways, but I haven't figured out how to follow the instructions. Trying to watch your head is like trying to bite your teeth.

They're head over heels in love. That's nice, but all of us do almost everything head over heels. If we are trying to create an image of people doing cartwheels and somersaults, why don't we say, They're heels over head in love?

Put your best foot forward. Now let's see.... We have a good foot and a better foot -- but we don't have a third -- and best -- foot. It's our better foot we want to put forward. This grammar atrocity is akin to May the best team win. Usually there are only two teams in the contest. Similarly, in any list of bestsellers. only the most popular book is genuinely a bestseller. All the rest are bettersellers.

Keep a stiff upper lip. When we are disappointed or afraid, which lip do we try to control? The lower lip, of course, is the one we are trying to keep from quivering.

I'm speaking tongue in cheek. So how can anyone understand you?

Skinny. If fatty means "full of fat," shouldn't skinny mean "full of skin"?

They do things behind my back. You want they should do things in front of your back?

They did it ass backwards. What's wrong with that? We do everything ass backwards.

English is weird.

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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