A couple nights ago I was watching the new show “Trauma” with my hubby. In the episode, a building catches on fire and one of the EMT’s said something along the lines of ” at least we got here before the entire place burns down”. And being me (and a little strange), that triggered my memory and I asked my hubby, “Does a house burn up or burn down”? After looking at me like I was crazy (I’m not, I swear!), I explained that it was the title of an essay I remembered reading as a kid – about some of the weird parts of the English language – and that it was called “does a house burn up or burn down”. I didn’t remember who wrote it, but I decided I needed to find it. Unfortunately, I found nothing with that title. So, after spending some time thinking, I remembered a few other lines of it, and searched for those. Luckily Google and I finally found it! And it wasn’t an essay at all. It is an entire book called Crazy English, by Richard Lederer! I was very excited to find it, and even more excited to find the excerpt from the book that I remembered reading in school. So, for a little mid-week break, enjoy some of the craziness of the English language, as written by Richard Lederer:
English is a crazy language—the most loopy and wiggy of all tongues.
In what other language do people drive in a parkway and park in a driveway?
In what other language do people play at a recital and recite at a play?
Why does night fall but never break and day break but never fall?
When a house burns up, it burns down. You fill in a form by filling it out and an alarm clock goes off by going on?
Why is it that when we transport something by car, it’s called a shipment, but when we transport something by ship, it’s called cargo?
Why do we pack suits in a garment bag and garments in a suitcase?
Why do privates eat in the general mess and generals eat in the private mess?
Why do we call it newsprint when it contains no printing but when we print on it, we call it a newspaper?
Why does a man get a hernia and a woman a hysterectomy?
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 day-dreaming 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 father 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 is it 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 is there an s in lisp?
English is crazy.
If adults commit adultery, do infants commit infanticide? If olive oil is made from olives, what do they make baby oil from? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian consume? if pro and con are opposites, is congress the opposite of progress?
Why can you call a woman a mouse but not a rat—a kitten but not a cat? Why is it that a woman can be a vision, but not a sight—unless your eyes hurt? Then she can be “a sight for sore eyes.”
A writer is someone who writes, and a stinger is something that stings. But fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce, hammers don’t ham, humdingers don’t humding, ushers don’t ush, and haberdashers do not haberdash.
If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn’t the plural of booth be beeth? One goose, two geese—so one moose, two meese? One index, two indices—one Kleenex, two Kleenices?
If people ring a bell today and rang a bell yesterday, why don’t we say that they flang a ball? If they wrote a letter, perhaps they also bote their tongue. If the teacher taught, why isn’t it also true that the preacher praught? Why is it that the sun shone yesterday while I shined my shoes, that I treaded water and then trod on the beach, and that I flew out to see a World Series game in which my favorite player flied out?
If we conceive a conception and receive at a reception, why don’t we grieve a greption and believe a beleption? If a firefighter fights fire, what does a freedom fighter fight? If a horsehair mat is made from the hair of horses, from what is a mohair coat made?
A slim chance and a fat chance are the same, as are a caregiver and a caretaker, a bad licking and a good licking, and “What’s going on?” and “What’s coming off?” But a wise man and a wise guy are opposites. How can sharp speech and blunt speech be the same and quite a lot and quite a few the same, while overlook and oversee are opposites? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell the next?
If button and unbutton and tie and untie are opposites, why are loosen and unloosen and ravel and unravel the same? If bad is the opposite of good, hard the opposite of soft, and up the opposite of down, why are badly and goodly, hardly and softly, and upright and downright not opposing pairs? If harmless actions are the opposite of harmful actions, why are shameful and shameless behavior the same and pricey objects less expensive than priceless ones? If appropriate and inappropriate remarks and passable and impassable mountain trails are opposites, why are flammable and inflammable materials, heritable and inheritable property, and passive and impassive people the same?
How can valuable objects be less valuable than invaluable ones? If uplift is the same as lift up, why are upset and set up opposite in meaning? Why are pertinent and impertinent, canny and uncanny, and famous and infamous neither opposites nor the same? How can raise and raze and reckless and wreckless be opposites when each pair contains the same sound?
Why is it that when the sun or the moon or the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible; that when I clip a coupon from a newspaper I separate it, but when I clip a coupon to a newspaper, I fasten it; and that when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I shall end it?