English is a Crazy Language
(from Crazy English [Pocket Books, 1989] © Richard Lederer August 17, 1996)
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?
Sometimes you have to believe that all English speakers should be committed to an asylum
for the verbally insane. In what other language do people drive in a parkway and park in a
driveway? In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? In what
other language do privates eat in the general mess and generals eat in the private mess? In
what other language do people ship by truck and send cargo by ship? In what other language
can your nose run and your feet smell?
How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same and a bad licking and a good licking
be the same, while 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? How can the expressions "What's going on?" and "What's coming off?" mean exactly
the same thing?!?
If button and unbutton and tie and untie are opposites, why are loosen and unloosen and ravel
and unravel he 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 nonactions, 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, and valuable objects less treasured 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?
English is a crazy language.
How can it be easier to assent than to dissent but harder to ascend than to descend? Why it
is 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?
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