Wednesday, 29 April 2015


“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus

I am reading at the moment, “Port Out Starboard Home”, by Michael Quinion. This is a marvellous book that will interest anyone who has a fascination with the vagaries of the English language. It examines the real etymology (origin) of a large number of words and phrases, but looks mainly at the fanciful stories that people have made up to explain how these odd words and phrases came about (ie: “etymythology”). Some of these these stories are very tall, highly amusing, a few ingenious, some ridiculous, and in other cases downright silly.

For example why is a Guinea pig so-called, when it is neither porcine nor from Guinea? Why are Americans nowadays loath to use the phrase “to call a spade a spade” and why perhaps we should all be saying instead “to call a trough a trough” in its place? Perhaps you would like to know why you should mind your P’s and Q’s but not worry about other letters of the alphabet? Or perhaps why women can’t testify, whereas any able-bodied male can…?

It all makes for captivating reading and proves that the English language is not only a very rich and highly interesting one, but a quirky and irrational one as well, a language precise enough to write philosophical treatises of great abstraction in, but at the same time one whose illogical grammar and whose prodigious vocabulary with its immense shades of meaning, its homonyms, homographs and homophones, can make learning it the nightmare of a foreigner, and drive even a native speaker to distraction.

For example:
The bandage was wound around the wound.
The farm was used to produce produce.
The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
We must polish the Polish furniture.
He could lead if he could get the lead out.
The soldier decided to desert and eat his dessert in the desert.
Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
After a number of injections my jaw got number.
Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
He decided to cleave the piece of wood, but as soon as it was done he put his mind to cleave it into one piece again.

Or how about this anonymous piece that has been around for some time?

“Let’s face it, English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth “beeth”? One goose, two geese. So one moose, two meese?

Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it? If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue?

Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? Park on driveways and drive on parkways?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another day. Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable? And where are all those people who ARE spring chickens or who would ACTUALLY hurt a fly?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.”

1 comment:

  1. Nicholas,

    A most interesting piece of writing, with oodles of valuable information. I'm most interested in the etymology of words, especially since starting to write poetry about five years ago. I find myself thumbing through many dictionaries, to try and either verify the authenticity of an odd word; or in fact, to compose my own. The dictionaries I refer to are not only English language dictionaries, but also French, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, An old Scots dictionary and various Northern Irish colloquial references. Finding the root of a word, brings great logic and satisfaction, when considering my own word-making efforts. That is why I admire Samuel Beckett, the Irish writer so much. He was quite the master of word-working!
    I'm pleased that I found this interesting Blog post..