Is English a great language or what?
When I was student at Cheltenham High School the one course my friends told me to avoid was Latin. They reeled off the ditty “Latin as a language is dead as it can be, first it killed the Romans and now it’s killing me.” I took their advice.
A stern looking woman named Juanita Downes taught Latin at dear old CHS. I avoided her by being ahead of the curve and struggling my way through three years of Spanish. I tried French once and lasted one or two report periods and took off for typing class (which served me better anyway). Someone at the school had decided it would be a good idea to have an exchange teacher from Belgium teach us French with a Flemish accent. I could not understand her in any language.
I’m reminded of the story about 1930s and ’40s big league player/spy Moe Berg who was a linguist and could converse in seven languages and, as a sportswriter once wrote, “could not hit in any of them.”
So what happened? I ended up as an English teacher. If you think Latin, Spanish and French are hard, consider growing up in another country and coming to America and having to learn English. Also consider being a teacher and trying to make rational sense of the language to someone who clearly thinks you (and your language) are crazy.
Some examples (compiled, in all honesty, from stuff I’ve gathered from fellow teachers over the years) are in order to illustrate my remarks. We run a gubernatorial election and the winner becomes, not a goober (though some end up being one), but the governor. Pineapples have neither pine nor apples in them. Guinea pigs are not from Guinea, nor are they pigs. Of course there are no eggs in an eggplant, English muffins didn’t come from England and french fries didn’t start out in France. Italian hoagies didn’t originate in Italy either.
Writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham. The plural of tooth is teeth, but why then isn’t the plural of booth, beeth? Why doesn’t Buick rhyme with quick? Why do teachers teach and preachers preach, but while teachers taught, preachers don’t praut. Why is geese the plural of goose, but meese not the plural of moose?
How come you open up something because it is stopped up? Or open up your store in the morning and then close it up in the evening? In fact that little twoletter word “up” probably has more uses and meanings than any other word in the English language. vou wake up, speak up, write up a report, clean up leftovers, stir up trouble and work up an appetite. To get dressed is one thing, but to get dressed up is quite another. vour house can burn up as it burns down.
People ship by truck and send cargo by ship. They have noses that run, feet that smell. Boxing rings are square, quicksand is often slow. Assuming a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? vou can make amends but not one amend. vou can have odds and ends, but if you are left with just one what is it? Odd or end?
What I find really baffles people — especially the foreign students — are heteronyms. These are words that have the same spelling but, according to the way they are used, mean different things and are often even pronounced differently.
For example, the nurse wound the bandage around a wound. They used the farm to produce produce. The dump was so full it had to refuse more refuse. The captain could lead if he got the lead out. When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes; the buck does funny things when the does are present. The insurance for the invalid was invalid. There’s this killer: Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present. Did you record record sales? vikes!
Homographs are like heteronyms and are a word spelled like another but with a different meaning or origin. I present the following to illustrate. The word fast can mean speedy but it can also mean going without food. A flat is an English apartment, but it can also describe something smooth. A wise person and an herb can both be described by the word sage. A slug is a ghastly looking little animal, or it is something you do to the guy who just insulted your wife?
Since I teach creative writing at the college I use a weekly synonyms drill. That’s where you learn that not just one word describes something. I use the example that a student once turned in a two-page paper in which the word “respect” appeared 42 times. Even Aretha Franklin, on her best day, never used it that often. Synonyms are how writers keep things interesting. The words to say or to tell have, at least, 50 possible synonyms from inform to verbalize, articulate to jabber. Someone that is ugly is also hideous, frightful, gruesome and 25-plus other words.
I had some great English teachers in my life — J. Hamilton Lampe at Thomas Williams Junior High was my most memorable — and I try to emulate their teachings and their influence as I work with my students. And, sometimes, it’s not easy. With all due respect to Juanita Downes, English is hard enough – I stood no chance with Latin.
Listen to Ted Taylor on WRDV FM 89.3 every Tuesday from 8 a.m. to noon, or contact him at ted@tedtaylor. com.