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Illogical English language

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By Lee Hyon-soo

Many people decry English as being illogical. As a matter of fact, there are many English words, idioms, cliches and common expressions that defy logic.

A slim chance and a fat chance are the same thing, but a wise guy and a wise man mean completely different things. Button and unbutton are opposites, but ravel and unravel are the same. Harmless actions are the opposite of harmful actions, but shameless and shameful behavior are the same.

Performers play at a recital and recite at a play. We drive on a parkway and park in a driveway. When the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible. Boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. Why do our noses run but our feet smell?

The plural of box is boxes, but the plural of ox is oxen, not oxes. The plural of tooth is teeth, but the plural of booth is booths, not beeth.

There is no egg in eggplant, no butter in buttermilk, neither worms nor wood in wormwood, neither pine nor apple in pineapple, and no ham in hamburger.

The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse. The wind was too strong to wind the sail. The bandage was wound around the wound. I filled in my form by filling it out. I was too close to the door to close it. Upon seeing the tear in the painting, I shed a tear.

If a vegetarian eats vegetables, 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? Why do privates eat in the general mess and generals eat in the private mess?

The language has its own life. To understand why English is the way it is, we need to trace its evolution.

In the 5th century Germanic tribes invaded Britain and settled mainly in what is now England. And they established their own language, Anglo-Saxon or Old English. Although Old English remained at the center of the growing English language, it was continuously modified by a succession of further invasions.

Toward the end of the 8th century the Danish Vikings started invading the east coast of England. The Vikings were absorbed into the life of the Anglo-Saxons and so was their language, Old Norse. In exchange, Old Norse gave the English language many new words.

In 1066 William of Normandy conquered England. For nearly 300 years Norman French was the language of the English court, nobility, law courts, learned professions and schools. But the common people went on speaking Old English. Therefore, there were two languages spoken from 1066 till the early 14th century. But as the Normans became cut off from France and intermarried with the Anglo-Saxons, the two languages mingled and became Middle English.

The full tide of the Renaissance reached England in about 1500. This invasion brought with it a flood of Greek and Latin words, many of which soon became permanently absorbed into English. By the time the English language digested its Renaissance borrowings in the middle of the 17th century, it more or less took on its present form. In general, the language from then on is essentially Modern English.

English is illogical not only because it is a hodge-podge of several different languages but also because English words gained new meanings with the passage of time. It is interesting to note that there are words with multiple meanings as well as Janus words (named after the two-headed Roman god) auto-antonyms which have contradictory meanings. One example of a Janus word is "sanction" which can mean "to allow" or "to prohibit."No wonder we are baffled by English.

The writer is a retired international banker who lives in Toronto, Canada. His other writings are posted on


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