What on Earth Are We Saying?

Every language contains its fair share of illogicalities, but English might seem to have more than most. If you have an 'ept' command of the language - read on!

A favourite English children's riddle asks: What can go up a spout down but can't go down a spout up? (Answer: an umbrella.) Children delight in the apparent contradiction of the question, and grown-ups may smile at the manipulation of the language. Yet few English people notice any contradiction in the expressions: go up on the downs, walk round the square or continue straight along the winding path.

English is full of such illogicalities. You can eat cold hot dogs, write on a green blackboard, use a paper tablecloth, have nightmares during the day and grow white bluebells. In this crazy language a ladybird is not a bird but a beetle, a titmouse is a bird not a mouse. A pearmain is not a pear but an apple, whilst the fruit the English call a pineapple has no connection with either pine trees or apples. Firedogs never bark, as they are metal supports for burning logs in a fireplace. A guinea pig is not a pig nor does it come from Guinea. The only connection the fish lemon sole has with lemons is if it is sprinkled with lemon juice when cooked. A salt cellar is found on the dining-room table, not in the basement.

A writer writes, a singer sings, but a grocer doesn't groce, a haberdasher doesn't haberdash, and a butler doesn't butle. You can toast with a toaster, beat with a beater, dig with a digger, but you can't ham with a hammer nor whisk with a whisker - not without upsetting the cat.

If you are familiar with Pooh Bear in English, you may recall one of his favourite songs, which goes:

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston pie.
A fly can't bird, but a bird can fly.

Similarly a woman can man a boat or a station, but a man can never woman one. Why not? This is not only illogical but sexist, too. Is it logical that in the army a private eats in the general mess, whilst a general eats in the private mess?

Which foot is your best?

How absurd it is to urge people to put their best foot forward, as if they had three feet - a good one, a better one and a best one! Before a football match you may hear a sports commentator say: May the best team win. Well, have you ever seen three teams playing together? It is absurd to urge someone to keep a stiff upper lip when it is the lower lip that trembles with emotion. Why is the language so topsy-turvy?

How illogical we are to tell children to put their shoes and socks on! Fortunately, children are sensible enough to put on their socks first, or mothers would have some very large holes to darn. Young people are said to fall head over heels in love. My head is normally above my heels, and if I were to fall it would be heels over head.

Opposites that don't oppose

In English, opposites can mean the same. Tie and untie have different meanings, but loosen means the same as unloosen. Ravel is the same as unravel, flammable as inflammable, and there is no difference between habitants and inhabitants. A good telling-off is really a bad telling-off, and if a teenager says a pop group is wicked, you know it is very good indeed.

You may decide not to buy the group's latest CD as it's too pricey, i.e. expensive, but if something is priceless only a millionaire could afford it. An object that is valuable is worth a lot of money, one that is invaluable is worth even more. Now where's the logic in

There are even words in English that have two contradictory meanings. If you stand fast you stay in the same place, but if you run fast you quickly get to somewhere else. If you dust the furniture, you take the dust off; if you dust the cat with flea-powder, you put it on. You can trip by stumbling clumsily or by dancing lightly. Cleave can mean to split apart (a log) or cling together (your family). To throw out an idea may mean to suggest it for consideration or to reject it. Quite can mean to some extent or completely. Quite!

Logically there can't be a negative without a positive, but in English there can. To many people this is nonsensical. No-one could think it sensical as that word does not exist. There is a humorous rhyme which begins:

I know a little man both ept and ert.
And intro? Extro? No, he's just a vert.

Inept, inert, introvert and extrovert are genuine words; ept, ert and vert are not. Nor are gruntled, shevelled, plussed, maculate, peccable, petuous, domitable, defatigable, kempt and wieldy. Logically they should be the opposites of disgruntled, dishevelled, nonplussed, immaculate, impeccable, impetuous, indomitable, indefatigable, unkempt and unwieldy.

Why do some words exist only in the plural? When depressed, you can be in the doldrums, but never in a doldrum. If you wrong someone, you may make amends, but never an amend. You can smash something fragile to smithereens, but you can't pick up a single smithereen. Just as illogically, having borrowed some plural nouns from other languages, English insists on using them as singulars. The spaghetti is good, we say, making Italians wince. This data is incorrect, we say, and classical scholars shudder.

The proverbial contradiction

English proverbs often illogically contradict each other. Can we accept that Many hands make light work when we know that Too many cooks spoil the broth? Or that A silent man is a wise one when we learn that A man without words is a man without thoughts? Look before you leap cautions one proverb. He who hesitates is lost warns another. Which should we believe? If Forewarned is forearmed makes good sense, what about Don't cross your bridges until you come to them? Fine feathers make fine birds, says one, but another asserts You should not judge a book by its cover. You may believe that Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and then find that Out of sight is out of mind. It's very confusing.

Beware, however, of sneering at the lack of logic in English. In Polish your face and hands are feminine, but your nose and fingers are masculine, and your eyes are neuter. Even more curious, you yourself were neuter as a child whether you later became a masculine boy or a feminine girl. So although English is often illogical, Polish people in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones.

Delia Tait