The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 10, 2000

And why not a Queendom?
By Jaswant Singh

THE company was celebrating its foundation day and it had had a good successful year. The profits had been high and the management was in generous mood. The top brass was on the rostrum and the employees formed a circle around them. Good workers were to be given special awards and general incentives were to be offered to all. As the top boss handed over the awards, he expressed his "most fulsome" congratulations to the winners.

Now did the boss realise his faux pas? obviously, the well-meaning man wanted to convey his abundant congratulations to the workers. But it did not occur to him that what he said actually meant insincere, offensive and distasteful praise. That is how the dictionary defines the word "fulsome".

Such foot-in-the-mouth act is so common with the users of the English language that you can hardly keep a count of them.

Since our school days we have been hearing jokes about the humpy nature of the English language. It starts with simple things such as why "to" and "go" are pronounced differently or why "U" has a different sound in "put" and "but", or why "no" and "know" have to have a similar sound.


Illustration: Sandeep Joshi But this is not where the inconsistency of this daftly insane language ends. The more you learn this language the more familiar you get with its wild nature. So full it is of confusing expressions that it can make a lame duck rule the roost or set a dog-eat-dog world on a rat race.

Let us start with something that concerns the newspaper world. You call it newsprint when there is nothing printed on it, and when you have covered it with print, you call it newspaper. Isn’t that crazy? You may say that this kind of asymmetry is found in almost every language. Languages are, after all, developed by human beings, not by computers. But then in which loony language can your nose run and your feet smell?

When you transport something by road, it is a shipment but when you transport something by ship, you call it a cargo. Do you know of any other language in which people play at a recital and recite at a play?

Why night always falls and never breaks, and day always breaks and never falls? Is there another language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway?

You may feel this is going a bit too far in this business of hole-picking. After all, these expressions have stood the test of time and there is no room for any confusion. O.K., then if a woman can man a station, why can’t a man woman it? If a man can father a movement, why can’t a woman mother it? If a king can have a kingdom, why can’t a queen have a queendom?

Moreover if uplift and lift up are the same, why upset and set up have opposite meanings. And why are pertinent and impertinent, famous and infamous neither the same nor the opposite? If a slim chance and a fat chance are the same then why a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

If adults commit adultery, then do infants commit infantry? If vegetarians eat vegetables, then what do humanitarians satisfy their appetite with?

You may say that is amounts to being rather cussed. Instead of appreciating the delights of the language, its charming side is being presented as crazy.

But why the sun and the moon are visible when they are out, but the lights when they are out are not visible? Why are those who serve food in restaurants called waiters, when it is the customer who does the waiting? If six, seven, eight and nine can change to sixty, seventy, eighty and ninety, why do two, three, four and five not become twoty, threety, fourty and fivety? If a first degree murder is more serious than a third degree murder, then why a third degree burn is more serious than a first degree burn? It is only in this lunatic language that you can turn a light out, but can’t turn a light in. It is only in English that the sun comes up and goes down but prices go up and come down, that a car can slow up and also slow down.

Do you know catgut has nothing to do with cats. It is actually sheep and horse intestines. Camel’s hair brushes are made from squirrel fir and hedgehogs are neither hedges, nor hogs.

Noisome has nothing to do with noise. It means something or someone extremely unpleasant.

A guinea pig is not a pig nor does it come from Guinea. It happens to be a rodent.

Why is it called buttermilk when there is no butter in it?

Isn’t it unfair to call them Arabic numerals when they were invented in India?

When peanut is neither a pea nor a nut, but a legume, why does the English language insist on calling it "peanut"?.

Why is it called ‘blindworm’ when it happens to be a lizard which can see?

If someone tries to vent his spleen on you, why should it not be possible for you to vent your liver or your kidneys on him?

This can go on and on endlessly, and yet English happens to be the global language today. Eighty per cent of all computer texts are stored in English; more than 70 per cent of the world’s mail is written in English; 60 per cent of the world’s radio programmes are broadcast in English and half the world’s books are written in English.

So who cares, if at times it tends to look some what wacky and wild.

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