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RICHARD LEDERER Richard Lederer (1938- ) was born in Philadelphia and attended Haverford College, Harvard, and the University of New Hampshire. From 1962 to 1989 he taught English at St. Paul's School, a private preparatory academy in Concord, New Hampshire. Lederer retired from teaching at the age of fifty-one so that he could, in his words, "extend my mission as a user-friendly English teacher," and he has succeeded, according to critic J’aui Dickinson, in "transforming the use of English into an activity that ri- vals sex as a source of pleasure." His popular, lighthearted works on the wonders and oddities of the English language — and how it is fractured by politicians and bureaucrats, among others — include Anguished English (1987), Crazy English (1989), The Miracle of Language (1991), and Adventures of a Verbivore (1995). Author of more than a thousand articles on writing and language, Lederer writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column, "Looking at Language," in addition to contributing the monthly "Grammar Grappler" column to Writer's Digest In the following essay, he offers a wide array of amusing examples to support the bold thesis stated in his title. English Is a Crazy Language English is the most widely spoken language in the history of our l planet, used in some way by at least one out of every seven human beings around the globe. Half of the world's books are written in English, and Hie majority of international telephone calls are made in English. English is the language of over sixty percent of the world's radio programs, many of them beamed, ironically, by the Russians, who know that to win friends and influence nations, they're best off using English. More than seventy percent of international mail is written and addressed in English, and eighty percent of all computer text is stored in English. English has acquired the largest vocabulary of all the world's 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 2 language. In the crazy English language, the blackbird hen is brown, black- 3 boards can be blue or green, and blackberries are green and then red be- fore they are ripe. Even if blackberries were really black and blueberries really blue, what are strawberries, cranberries, elderberries, huckleber- ries, raspberries, boysenberries, mulberries, and gooseberries supposed to look like? To add to the insanity, there is no butter in buttermilk, no egg in egg- 4 plant, no grape in grapefruit, neither worms nor wood in wormwood, neither pine nor apple in pineapple, neither peas nor nuts in peanuts, and no ham in a hamburger. (In fact, if somebody invented a sandwich con- 182 EXEMPLIFICATION sisting of a ham patty in a bun, we would have a hard time finding a name for it.) To make matters worse, English muffins weren't invented in England, french fries in France, or danish pastries in Denmark. And we discover even more culinary madness in the revelations that sweetmeat is candy, while sweetbread, which isn't sweet, is made from meat. In this unreliable English tongue, greyhounds aren't always grey (or 5 gray); panda bears and koala bears aren't bears (they're marsupials); a woodchuck is a groundhog, which is not a hog; a horned toad is a lizard; glowworms are fireflies, but fireflies are not flies (they're beetles); lady- bugs and lightning bugs are also beetles (and to propagate, a significant proportion of ladybugs must be male); a guinea pig is neither a pig nor from Guinea (it's a South American rodent); and a titmouse is neither mammal nor mammaried. Language is like the air we breathe. It's invisible, inescapable, indis- 6 pensable, and we take it for granted. But when we take the time, step back, and listen to the sounds that escape from the holes in people's faces and 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, midwives can be men, hours — especially happy hours and rush hours — can last longer than sixty minutes, quicksand works very slowly, boxing rings are square, silverware can be made of plastic and tablecloths of paper, most tele- phones are dialed by being punched (or pushed?), and most bathrooms don't have any baths in them. In fact, a dog can go to the bathroom under a tree — no bath, no room; it's still going to the bathroom. And doesn't it seem at least a little bizarre that we go to the bathroom in order to go to the bathroom? Why is it that a woman can man a station but a man can't woman 7 one, that a man can father a movement but a woman can't mother one, and that a king rules a kingdom but a queen doesn't rule a queendom? How did all those Renaissance men reproduce when there don't seem to have been any Renaissance women? A writer is someone who writes, and a stinger is something that 8 stings. But fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce, hammers don't ham, and humdingers don't humding. If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn t the plural of booth be beeth? One goose, two geese — so one moose, two meese? One index, two indices — one Kleenex, two Kleenices? If people ring a bell today and rang a bell yesterday, why don't we say that they flang a ball? If they wrote a letter, perhaps they also bote their tongue. If the teacher taught, why isn't it also true that the preacher praught? Why is it that the sun shone yesterday while I shined my shoes, that I treaded water and then trod on soil, and that I flew out to see a World Series game in which my favorite player flied out? If we conceive a conception and receive at a reception, why don't 9 we grieve a greption and believe a beleption? If a horsehair mat fs Lederer / English Is a Crazy Language 183 jnade from the hair of horses and a camel's hair brush from the hair of camels, from what is a mohair coat made? If a vegetarian eats vegeta- bles, what does a humanitarian eat? If a firefighter fights fire, what does a freedom fighter fight? If a weightlifter lifts weights, what does a shoplifter lift? If pro and con are opposites, is congress the opposite of progress? Sometimes you have to believe that all English speakers should be 10 committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what other language do people drive in a parkway and park in a driveway? In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? In what other language do privates eat in the general mess and generals eat in the private mess? In what other language do men get hernias and women get hysterectomies? In what other language do people ship by truck and send cargo by ship? In what other language can your nose run and your feet smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, "what's going 11 on?" and "what's coming off?" be the same, and a bad licking and a good licking be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? How can sharp speech and blunt speech be the same and quite a lot and quite a few the same, while overlook and oversee are opposites? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell the next? If button and unbutton and tie and untie are opposites, why are loosen 12 and unloosen and ravel and unravel the same? If bad is the opposite of good, hard the opposite of soft, and up the opposite of down, why are badly and goodly, hardly and softly, and upright and downright not opposing pairs? If harmless actions are the opposite of harmful actions, why are shameless and shameful behavior the same and pricey objects less expensive than priceless ones? If appropriate and inappropriate remarks and passable and impassable mountain trails are opposites, why are flammable and in- flammable materials, heritable and inheritable property, and passive and impassive people the same and valuable objects less treasured than in- valuable ones? If uplift is the same as lift up, why are upset and set up op- posite in meaning? Why are pertinent and impertinent, canny and uncanny, and famous and infamous neither opposites nor the same? How can raise and raze and reckless and wreckless be opposites when each pair contains the same sound? Why is it that when the sun or the moon or the stars are out, they are 13 visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible, and that when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I shall end it? English is a crazy language. u COMPREHENSION 1 . According to Lederer, in what sense is English a crazy language? 2 . Why is English such an important language? 184 EXEMPLIFICATION 3. What does Lederer mean when he says that language is "like the air we breathe" (6)? Why does he believe this? 4. According to Lederer, what are "the paradoxes and vagaries of English" (6)? PURPOSE AND AUDIENCE 1. What is the thesis of this essay? Where is this thesis stated? 2. What is Lederer's purpose in writing this essay? To instruct? To enter- tain? To persuade? Do you think he is serious or playful? Explain. 3. At whom are Lederer's comments aimed? Students of the English lan- guage? Those who know little about the language? Both? Explain. STYLE AND STRUCTURE 1. What information does Lederer provide in his introduction? Why do you think he provides this background material? 2. What point does Lederer make in each of his body paragraphs? How do the examples in these paragraphs help to support each point? 3. Do you think Lederer uses too many examples? Should he have used fewer examples and discussed them in more depth? Should he have de- voted one paragraph to a single example? Explain your position. 4. Lederer uses a one-sentance paragraph to end his essay. How appropri- ate is this conclusion? Is it too brief? Why or why not? VOCABULARY PROJECTS 1. Define each of the following words as it is used in this selection. annals (1) culinary (4) sweetbread (4) marsupials (5) mamma ried (5) passive (12) pertinent (12) impertinent (12) canny (12) uncanny (12) infamous (12) reckless (12) 2. At several points in the essay, Lederer says that English is a crazy lan- guage. What connotations does the word crazy have? Can you think of another word with a more precise meaning that he could have used? What might he have gained or lost by substituting this word for crazy? I JOURNAL ENTRY Assume that you are learning to speak English. What expressions give you the most trouble? Do you, like Lederer, believe that English is a crazy la nguage? WRITING WORKSHOP 1. Write an essay in which you use your own list of words to support thfi , idea that English is a crazy language. Use numerous short examples to support your thesis.
(Examples of fractured English from around the world)... Paris hotel: Please leave your values at the desk... Bangkok dry clearners: Drop your trousers here for best results... Austrian ski resort: Not to perambulate the corridors in hours of repose in the boots of Ascension... Polish restaurant menu: Roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten up in the country people's fashion... Wine list in a Swiss restaurant: Our wines will leave you nothing to hope for... Acapulco hotel: The manager has personally passed all the water served here... Tokyo hotel: You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid... Prague tourist agency: Take one of our horse-drawn city tours. We guarantee no miscarriages... Paris boutique: Dresses for street walking... Oslo cocktail lounge: Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar... Hong Kong dentist: Tooth extractions using the latest Methodists... Budapest zoo: Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty... Budapest hotel: The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.~Reportedly compiled by translators with the European Economic Community.
I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.~Charles V.
A Chinese sage said that “if language is not used correctly, then what is said is not meant; if what is said is not meant, then what ought to be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will be corrupted; if morals and art are corrupted, justice will go astray and the people will stand about in helpless confusion.”~Henry O Dorman.
To be loose with grammar is to be loose with the worst woman in the world.~Otis C. Edwards
I have labored to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations.~Samuel Johnson.
If the English language had been properly organized — then there would be a word which meant both “he” and “she,” and I could write, “If John or Mary comes heesh will want to play tennis,” which would save a lot of trouble.~A.A. Milne
If it is now politically incorrect to refer to “colored” people, why is it politically correct, and indeed trendy, to use the phrase “people of color?” What the hell is the difference between a colored person and a person of color? I must confess the fine point escapes me. Indeed, it serves to underline the goofy belief that words have a life of their own and that good words can somehow become bad words through some curious alchemy of the spirit.~Pierre Berton.
The English language is being augmented every year by about 400 new words. We cannot cope. We are drowning in the plethora. It’s far better to possess a small vocabulary that you use properly rather than a big vocabulary with which you’re a bit impressionistic. There’s a danger for the English language to be known rather inexactly.~Anthony Burgess.
I just wanted to speak to you about something from the Internal Revenue Code. It is the last sentence of section 5409A of the code and it reads: “For purposes of paragraph 3, an organization described in paragraph 2 shall be deemed to include any organization described in 501 C-4, 5, or 6, which would be described in paragraph 2 if it were an organization described in section 501 C-3.” And that’s just one out of those 57 feet of books.~Ronald Reagan.
It’s a strange world of language when skating on thin ice can get you into hot water.~Franklin P. Jones