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Friday, August 1, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: The Final Chapter, People

English would be fine, except people keep
using it to talk.
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

When you get right down to it, the main reason English is so fouled up, is it keeps being used by people.  Language would be fine if we could only just leave it alone, but people keep using it to talk.  This leads to no end of trouble.

To start with, everytime someone does something unusual, we just turn his name into a new word.  And almost always it's a word for something bad.  Barney is a nice friendly dinosaur and Barney Rubble was a very friendly and helpful neighbor, but does Barney make it into the lexicon to mean friendly?  No, he does not.  Whose names turn into words? The Marquis de Sade, Judge Lynch, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and Joseph Guillotine.  At this rate, every possible baby name will become unusable because of the unsavory behavior of some fore-bearer.  How many little Caligulas, Adolphs, or Judases do you run into?

Admittedly, some of these eponymous words aren't so bad: pasteurize, mesmerize, and tantalize.  Sandwich comes from the Earl of Sandwich who supposedly invented it to leave one hand free for dice-throwing.  And then there's Sir John Crapper who helped pioneer the flush-toilet.  And sideburns from General Burnsides, which brings up another way we screw words up: metathesis.

Metathesis is when we transpose sounds - like the way some people say, "noo-cue-lar" for "nuclear," or kids say "pa-sketti" for "spaghetti."  Metathesis is like making a funny face, if you do it too often, every once in awhile it sticks that way.  Like sideburns, or butterfly - which is a completely nonsensical name for an insect until you know it was originally and more logically a flutter-by.  We may ridicule people for saying "aks" instead of "ask," except "aks" was the way it was originally pronounced before it metathesisized into "ask," and it seems on its way to metathesisizing back again.

Metathesizing isn't really a word, but it's just another way we mess things up; we take things we think are prefixes and suffixes off words to make other words, only the prefixes and suffixes weren't really prefixes or suffixes at all, and we're accidentally creating whole new words. 

This is called back-formation.  For example, some people take conversation and make a verb out of it, conversate.  That may sound silly to you now, but a lot of the words you use all the time were back-formed (there's an example right there) from other words.  Everyone knows butler gave us buttle, and burglar gave us burgle, but did you know gambler gave us gamble, and foggy gave us fog?  But that's different you say, those are actual words, or at least their back-formation was logical and neccessary.  Well, they weren't words until people thought they were.  And their creation was no more logical than making ham out of hammer or mug out of muggy.

And on top of that, even when we don't change the pronunciation of the word, we keep changing its meaning.  You can laugh at someone for saying irregardless, but why don't we laugh at inflammable?  Oversight, does that mean to fail to notice something or to pay it extra close attention?  Nice used to mean weak or stupid, but now it's something good.  Literally is fast on its way to meaning not literally.  And moot, can someone please tell me what moot means?  Does it mean worthy of discussion or completely irrelevant?

And we can't even leave the dead languages alone, but are forever digging them out of their graves and rearranging their parts.  Monopoly literally means "one many."  What kind of nonsense is that?  And sophomore means "wise fool," and preposterous is "before-after."

Honestly, English is such a mess, sometimes I almost think we're making this stuff up.

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