Weird Language blog post by Iris Carden
The English language is weird in all kinds of ways, which becomes very apparent to writers. After all, words are our basic tools.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because lately, whenever I type their into a story, meaning “the thing belonging to them”, the computer prompts me to change it to they’re which of course means “they are” and not what I was wanting to say at all.
When escalate and de-escalate are opposites, one would think fenestration and defenestration would also be opposites. Defenestration refers to throwing someone or something out a window, as in: “I was so sick of the computer failing, I defenestrated it.” Fenestration refers to the placement of windows in a building, or a particular kind of ornamental motif in furniture.
Gruntled and disgruntled are actually opposites, but one of them is in regular use and the other is so rarely used, I had to check whether it really was a word. Often when either my daughter or I mention that one of the pets is out of sorts, and use the term disgruntled the other the responds, “Whereas before they were relatively gruntled.” We were surprised to discover that gruntled is an actual word, which is an adjective that means, “pleased, satisfied, or content.”
Some things you’d expect to be opposites actually mean exactly the same thing.
- Lock down and lock up both mean to lock something.
- Chase up and chase down both mean to seek and find a thing.
- Clean up and clean down both mean to clean a thing. If someone says, “We need to clean up this bench.” It means exactly the same as if they said, “We need to clean down this bench.”
On the other hand some things that seem like they ought to be opposites are unrelated:
- Shut up means to stop talking, and shut down means to stop doing a thing (or usually to stop machinery doing a thing).
- To dress up is to put on your fancy clothes, and to dress down is to berate someone.
So are in and out opposites, or are they not?
- If you fill in a form, you do the same thing as you would if you fill out the form.
- On the form if you tick a box to opt in to an activity, it’s the opposite of if you’d ticked opt out.
Word order makes a massive difference in English. One of these sentences makes sense, and the other does not:
- We saw a snake driving along yesterday.
- Driving along yesterday, we saw a snake.
Punctuation can also change the entire meaning of a sentence. Consider the following sentences:
- Let’s eat Grandpa.
- Let’s eat, Grandpa.
If you pick up a chicken for dinner, and invite a friend for dinner, you are planning to eat one, and socialise with the other. (Do not get them confused.)
Spoken English has even more issues, because of homophones.
- Your heir inherits your estate after you stop breathing air.
- A hoarse horse, yay or nay, or perhaps neigh?
- You knead dough to make bread, and you need dough to pay your bills.
- They’re over there with their bags.
- I’m here to hear this speaker.
- I suppose you’ve heard about the herd of cattle that escaped.
- That hare has an interesting pattern in its hair.
- I was so sick, I felt weak all week.
- I really don’t think this fare increase is fair.
All of this leads into an old poem:
Weather the weather be fine or weather the weather be not we'll weather the weather whatever the weather whether we like it or not. Anonymous
Then there are the homonyms, which are spelled the same.
- After I read this book, it will be read.
- He will lead the team establishing the new lead mine.
- I’ll close this door which is close to me.
- You’d have to be very fit to be a fit for this part in the movie.
Some words should rhyme, but don’t.
- Grove doesn’t rhyme with move, but groove does.
- Save rhymes with rave, but not with have.
Plurals follow strange patterns as well:
- Boot/boots, hoot/hoots, foot/feet
- Sow/sows, cow/cattle
- Mouse/mice, louse/lice, house/houses
- Box/boxes, fox/foxes/, ox/oxen
- Goose/geese, moose/moose
Words can change meaning over time, because English is a living language. Decades ago, I was a journalist, my editor would laugh every time a politician said they would have a fulsome conversation with someone, or give fulsome details. He laughed, because fulsome meant “something odious, foul or offensive”. My old first edition Macquarie Concise Dictionary has a definition similar to that. If you look for fulsome on modern internet-based dictionaries, most of them won’t even list that as a meaning at all. Instead it they have it meaning an abundance, or excessively complimentary or flattering. So the word now has basically now means the opposite of what it did 35 years ago.
English is a crazy language. It’s a bit of Latin, a bit of Greek and a bit of every other language source Britain ever encountered. It’s also a living language, so it’s constantly changing. Each English-speaking country has its own variant of the language. All in all, English is a fun, challenging, sometimes an infuriating, and often non-sensical, tool to work with.