January 23, 1998
They’re back. One side of the building I work in looked slightly paler in full sunlight than the other, so the construction workers are back to tear out a few walls. The other day, walking by them, one happened to say to me, "Hey, why don’t you get a real job?" It really made me think. Maybe I SHOULD go out and get a real job. Something in construction. Yeah. I’ve been using my brain too much lately. It’s about time I get a job in which I can be paid twenty bucks an hour to eat doughnuts, drink coffee, and expose almost half of my backside. But I have nobler reasons for considering this occupational change. Hooting at any woman who happens to walk by seems to have gone out of style at construction sites, but there’s still room for improvement. While a question like, "Did you guys see that opera on the arts channel last night?" might at first lead to a comparison of beer guts to see which one of us looks most like Pavarotti from the neck down, it might lead to a thoughtful discussion of Wagner’s dark view of the human condition and his disagreement with Nietzsche. Sure. Who knows? Maybe I could convince them to temper the normal job site joie de vivre with a little after-doughnut meditation time and poetry reading. Sure. Look for next week’s Freethinker edition: my inside guide to a hospital emergency room. In the meantime, enjoy these offerings.
Let’s face it-English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.
We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices?
Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?
If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue?
Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? Park on driveways and drive on parkways?
How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another?
Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable? And where are all those people who ARE spring chickens or who would ACTUALLY hurt a fly?
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm goes off by going on.
English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.
One day, a married couple bore twin sons. They couldn’t afford to keep them, however, so they put them up for adoption. One of the boys went to a Spanish family and was named Juan. The other son went to an Egyptian family and was named Amal.
Some years later, Juan became curious about his real parents. After researching and finally locating them, he sent them a nice letter and a picture of himself. Upon receiving the picture, the original mother said, "I’m so glad that he’s happy. And what a wonderful picture. I wish we had a picture of Amal. I wonder what he looks like."
And her husband turned to her and said, "I wouldn’t worry about it. When you’ve seen Juan, you’ve seen Amal."