English is the most widely spoken language in the history of our planet, used in some way by at least one out of every seven human beings around the globe. Half of the worlds books are written in English, and the majority of international telephone calls are made in English. Sixty percent of the worlds radio programs are beamed in English, and more than seventy percent of international mail is written and addressed in English. Eighty percent of all computer texts, including all web sites, are stored in English.
Why do we call thembuildings, when theyre already built?
Why it is called aTV setwhen you get only one?
Language is like the air we breathe. Its 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 peoples 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 worksveryslowly, 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 dont have any baths in them. In fact, a dog can go to the bathroom under a tree — no bath, no room; its still going to the bathroom. And doesnt it seem a little bizarre that we go to the bathroom in order to go to the bathroom?
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Why isphoneticnot spelled phonetically? Why is it so hard to remember how to spellmnemonic? Why doesntonomatopoeiasound like what it is? Why is the wordabbreviationso long? Why isdiminutiveso undiminutive? Why does the wordmonosyllabicconsist of five syllables? Why is there no synonym forsynonymorthesaurus?
English has acquired the largest vocabulary of all the worlds languages, perhaps as many as two million words, and has generated one of the noblest bodies of literature in the annals of the human race. Nonetheless, it is now time to face the fact that English is a crazy language — the most loopy and wiggy of all tongues.
And why, pray tell, doeslisphave an s in it?
Sometimes you have to believe that all English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane:
In what other language do they call the third hand on the clock the second hand?
Why do they call themapartmentswhen theyre all together?
In what other language do people drive in a parkway and park in a driveway?In what other language do people play at a recital and recite at a play?Why does night fall but never break and day break but never fall?Why is it that when we transport something by car, its called ashipment, but when we transport something by ship, its calledcargo?Why does a man get ahernia and a woman ahysterectomy?Why do we pack suits in a garment bag and garments in a suitcase?Why do privates eat in the general mess and generals eat in the private mess?Why do we call itnewsprintwhen it contains no printing but when we put print on it, we call it anewspaper?Why are people who ride motorcycles calledbikersand people who ride bikes calledcyclists?Why — in our crazy language — can your nose run and your feet smell?
Why is it that a woman can man a station but a man cant woman one, that a man can father a movement but a woman cant mother one, and that a king rules a kingdom but a queen doesnt rule a queendom? How did all those Renaissance men reproduce when there dont seem to have been any Renaissance women?
This is the first installment of four in iStudentCitys publication of Richard Lederers essay English is a Crazy Language, the first chapter of his book. Dont worry if you see a phrase you dont know, just look it up in a dictionary. If you enjoy this article, visit Richard Lederers web site.
Richard Lederer has penned more than 2,000 books and articles about language and humor, including his bestsellingCrazy Englishand his current book,The Bride of Anguished English, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Described on his web site as Attila the Pun and Conan the Grammarian, Lederer enjoys sharing his love of English with the world. He volunteers as the vice president of The Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature (S.P.E.L.L.), and travels around speaking to everyone from elementary school students to teaching organizations.