English is a very tough language to learn. Ask any foreigner who is studying English as a second language and they will tell you that English is extremely difficult to learn because of its complex and sometimes inconsistent rules as well as the use of idioms that cannot be translated literally. Hence there are many ESL students who believe that the English language is crazy. And if anyone could confirm that the English language is crazy, it would be Richard Lederer, a self-confessed word lover (a “verbivore”) and lifelong punster, who has been studying the English language for more than 30 years. Lederer, who earned his PhD in Linguistics from the University of New Hampshire, is a prolific author having written more than 30 books and more than 2,000 articles about the English language. From 1998 to 2006, he was one of the co-hosts of “A Way With Words,” a weekly radio show that explored the nooks and crannies of the English language. Lederer continues to write about the English language on his blog, “Richard Lederer’s Verbivore.” Lederer approaches the English language like Mr. Keating (from the Dead Poet’s Society) approaches poetry: full of infectious passion. The fascinating and entertaining introduction to one of Lederer’s best-selling books, Crazy English (first published in 1989), is an absolute classic:
[It] is now time to face the fact that English is a crazy language. In the crazy English language….
the blackbird hen is brown
blackboards are blue or green
blackberries are green
there is no butter in buttermilk
there is no egg in eggplant
there is no pine or apple in pineapple
greyhounds are not grey (or gray)
a panda bear is a raccoon
a koala bear is a marsupial…
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 daydreaming 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 man 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?
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?
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?
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?
English is crazy.
For further reading: Crazy English: The Ultimate Joy Ride Through Our Language by Richard Lederer, Pocket Books (1989)
Lederer on Language: A Celebration of English, Good Grammar, and Wordplay by Richard Lederer, Marion Street Press (2012)
Get Thee to a Punnery: An Anthology of Intentional Assaults Upon the English Language by Richard Lederer, Gibbs Smith (2006)