Crazy English Part Four
Neil Weselby: The fourth and final part of the series examining the ridiculousness of the English language
English is weird.
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, fettle only with fine, aback with taken, caboodle with kit, and spic and span only with each other. Why must all shrifts be short, all bystanders innocent, and all bedfellows strange? I'm convinced that some shrifts are lengthy 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 a jitter, a willy, or a heebie-jeebie; and that, sifting through the wreckage of a disaster, we can never find just one smithereen?
Indeed, this whole business of plurals that don't have matching singulars reminds me to ask this burning question: 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 thing 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 are my cup of tea, and whom I would touch with a ten-foot barge 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. 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 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 turn lights off and on but not out and in. That's why we wear a pair of trousers but, except on very cold days, not a pair of shirts. That's why we can open up the floor, climb the walls, raise the roof, pick up the house, and bring down the house.
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of the English language, in which your house can simultaneously burn up and burn down, in which you fill in a form by filling out a form, in which you add up a column of figures by adding them down, in which your alarm clock goes off by going on, in which you are inoculated for measles by being inoculated against measles, and in which you first chop a tree down - and then you chop it up.
English truly is crazy!
(c) Neil Weselby, 2002