Oregon's Death With Dignity Law and Me
Follow-Up on Monday's Death With Dignity Post

A TGB READER STORY: Word Puzzles

By Fritzy Dean

Why is the opposite of disheveled, “neat or orderly”? Shouldn’t it be “sheveled”?

How is it that one can be often overwhelmed, seldom underwhelmed, but never, ever “whelmed?” According to Merriam and Webster, they had to do an exhaustive search to find a record of “whelmed” in print. It had to do with a city whose bay had so much rain that the inlets were all ”whelmed.” Obviously the opposite of overwhelmed is unimpressed, not “whelmed.”

I bet everyone of us know someone who is utterly “ruthless.” Do you know anybody who is utterly “ruth”? Of course, you don’t. If we want to describe the opposite of ruthless, we would say that person is humane, warm-hearted or charitable. Isn’t English a strange language?

For example English has over a million words, but only ONE for love. Only ONE! The Inuit people have over 14 words for snow - to describe the various forms of snow they may encounter. But in English, we have only ONE for love.

We must use the same word to declare “I love you” and “I just love horror movies”. Even the ancient Greeks had three words for love. There was eros for romantic love, phileo for brotherly love and agape for Godly love. English? Nope, just one.

And how about a plural for the pronoun “you”. Oh, I know the linguists will tell us the “you” is both singular and plural. So is sheep, but in real speech we KNOW that we should have a word to determine more than one person. That is why in the South we say “Y’all” and the New Jersey natives will say “youse guys” and in Appalachia, we might hear “you’ens”.

With over a million words available, shouldn’t we have a plural for “YOU”?

In 1976 I worked in downtown Houston with a young man whose first language was Arabic. I believe he was from Lebanon. We became friends I think because he knew he could ask me questions without being laughed at.

There were a number of young guys in the same department, but Kumail learned not to ask them questions because he would NOT get a straight answer, ever. When one of them mentioned that our boss was on his “high horse”, Kumail thought the boss owned a very tall pony. They let him think so.

One day Kumail asked me to explain the word “make-up”. I explained first that it is a compound word. ”Make” is a word, ”up” is a word and together they make a new word. That it is a term used for cosmetics, such as lipstick, face powder and mascara, collectively known as “make-up”. He looked even more puzzled and said he didn’t understand.

Oh, maybe the person meant to “kiss and make-up.” That means to resolve any differences between you and get back on positive footing. It could actually be taken literally if the speaker had a tiff with his girlfriend and wanted to make amends.

Kumail is looking more and more confused. Oh, maybe it was used to say, “We need to make up for lost time“. That just means we must hurry, we were too slow at the task.

He shakes his head wearily. No, no. Then I thought of one more way Americans use “make up.” Maybe the person said something like we need to make up a story and stick with it.

He brightened. “That’s it! What does this mean?” It means one or more people fabricate a story - “make it up.” And “stick with it” means don’t ever admit it was a made-up story.

Kumail thanked me profusely and exclaimed over again what a weird language English is and how difficult to learn. He said the whole conversation had given him a hang-around.

Now, it’s my turn to look puzzled. He said, “You know, when you go out drinking with your friends and the next day your head hurts so bad? A big “hang-around”.

Are you talking about a “hang-over”? Yeah, your language gives me a bad hang-around.

Me, too, Kumail. Me, too.

* * *

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Reader's stories are welcome. If you have not published here or not recently, please read submission instructions. Only one story per email.]

Comments

Cute essay. As a native American English speaker, I'm aware of my language's ummm quirks. I think that is part of a living evolving language. Latin doesn't have that issue. I wonder if other languages have similar confusing usages in casual speech. Altho probably not French with those "immortals" at the Académie Française watching and (rarely) approving new words and ruling on usage.

Can you be "turbed" ? I can be disturbed, but....
This is one of our family's favorite games :-) Glad Kumail had you to play with.
a/b

I just “adored” your article. ;)

I know you enjoyed writing this particular story as it involved words
and all their many meanings...your first love❤️ I loved it because it so cleverly written!!

I used to work in the veterinary field. One day,with a fellow tech, I was discussing all the dirty, bloody, horrifying things vet techs handle without a second thought.

I asked her if anything made her squeamish: cat puke makes me gag, and she didn't like handling feeder crickets.

We decided that for the most part, we didn't have any "squeams."

I've always been grateful to have been born in an English-speaking country. And more so with every passing year. I can't imagine having to learn English as a second language.

A 20th century philosopher, J.L. Austin, said that some words wear "the trousers." Sexist though it is (he said it in the late 1950s or early 60s) it's helpful in realizing that the negative form sometimes really is the important one. (In spite of this kind of sexism, he said some things i love, for example, that philosophers should get away from thinking about the beautiful and sublime and analyze the dainty and the dumpy.

I was "entranced" by your clever writing skills. Spanish has some difficult colloquialisms that make no sense when translated word by word....Dar la luz, for one phrase means to give birth...translated by words "to give the light"
Hecho una porqueria...means "I make a mess". Porqueria translates to filthy word or act.
Anyway, Spanish is not nearly so confusing to learn as English. Gracias.

The opposite of "overwhelmed" is "underwhelmed".

The plural of "you-all" ("y'all") is "all-you-all" ("all-y'all").

Try looking for a "gruntled" employee, not a disgruntled one.

Delightful! And too true. Thanks for the chuckle!

Did you know there are 14 ways to spell the "sh" sound in English? I can't remember them all now that I no longer teach, but here are a few that stand out: shoe, sure, nation, tension, mission, ocean, and (my personal favorite) anxious. A very weird language indeed.

I also enjoyed your piece. Along a similar vein is "uncouth", I've often wondered why someone couldn't then be "couth". Never in all my 73 years had I heard a positive spin on the word until my husband informed me that where he grew up in Scotland it was common to describe someone as "couthie". I now discover it's actually in the Collins Dictionary meaning "sociable, friendly, congenial".

Terrific post. English is a convoluted language and, I'm sure, can be very difficult to master if one is not born into a family where it's the primary language.

?Why when I tried to "edit" my comment did the comment disappear?
Anyway--Loved your story. When I was a kid, I couldn't understand how flammable and inflammable meant the same thing.

Love this piece! As an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I saw children struggle to express themselves/understand native English speakers every day. Often, the creative way they use words they know to ‘improvise’ is comical... like your friend’s “hang around.”

Thank you to all the word lovers who took the time to comment.
I LOVE getting feed back. I, too, am grateful I was born into a family
who spoke English.

I doubt I could ever have learned it as a second language.

In 8th grade I had a teacher who liked to stump the class with a puzzle a week. One week he wrote "ghoti" on the blackboard and asked who could both pronounce it properly and define it. After 30 or 40 guesses, he revealed that the word was "fish," with "gh" pronounced as in "enough," "o" prounced as in "women," and "ti" pronounced as in "action." Should have known; his name was Mr. Fish.

Really enjoyed this piece. Recall numerous stories of English misunderstandings with ESL learners. Also, my older brother often would humorously respond to some others socially questionable words or behaviors, “You ain’t got no couth!”

Great writing, as always. You brighten my day, Fritzy. Thanks. One of my students once said he found it “hard to catch the waiter’s eye.” This is a really strange visual I have never forgotten while eating in a restaurant, and needing more tea.

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