Our Crazy Language
Condensed from "Crazy English" by Richard Lederer
Reader's Digest, June 1990
If pro and con are opposites, is Congress the opposite of progress?"
English is the most widely used language in the history of our planet. One in every seven human beings can speak it. More than half of the world's books and three-quarters of international mail are in English. Of all languages, English has the largest vocabulary - perhaps as many as two million words - and one of the noblest bodies of literature.
Nonetheless, let's face it: English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, neither pine nor apple in pineapple and no ham in a hamburger. English muffins weren't invented in England or french fries in France. Sweetmeats are candy, while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.
We take English for granted. But when we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square, public bathrooms have no baths and a guinea pig is neither a pig nor from Guinea.
And why is it that a writer writes, but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce, humdingers don't hum and hammers don't ham? 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?
Doesn't it seem loopy that you can make amends but not just one amend, that you comb through the annals of history but not just one anal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and you get rid of all but one, what do you call it?
If the teacher taught, why isn't it true that the preacher praught? If a horsehair mat is made from the hair of horses and a camel's-hair coat from the hair of camels, from what is a mohair coat made? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you also bote your tongue?
Sometimes I wonder if all English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what other language do people drive on a parkway and park in a driveway? 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?
How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a 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 the next?
Did you ever notice 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 the people who ARE spring chickens or who actually would hurt a fly? I meet individuals who CAN cut the mustard and whom I would touch with a ten-foot pole, but I cannot talk about them in English.
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 your 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 really a race at all). That is why, when stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible. Any why, when I wind up my watch I start it, but when I wind up this essay I end it.