FOLLIES OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
By John Ray
My collection of the sayings and deeds by which we remember people contains quite a collection of follies but, as the steak-knife salesman would say: "But wait, there's more"
WHY NOVGOROD IS REALLY NAPLES ..... etc.
The English have a strange habit of renaming foreign cities and
countries. One can perhaps understand them pronouncing Paris according
to their own spelling rules (instead of saying "Paree" as the French
do) and "Muenchen" does contain a naughty guttural that perhaps excuses
their referring to Bavaria's largest city as "Munich" (a place-name no
German would recognize) but why Beograd has to be Belgrade, why Roma
becomes Rome, why Firenze becomes Florence, why Venezia becomes Venice,
why Torino becomes Turin, why Moskva becomes Moscow, why Wien becomes
Vienna, why Lisboa becomes Lisbon, why the Donau becomes the Danube,
why Bayern becomes Bavaria, why Hellas is called Greece, why Nihon is
called Japan, why Espanya is called Spain and why Livorno becomes
Leghorn (of all things) I will never know. And for that matter, why
was Sovietskaya Rossiya always called Soviet Russia? I don't find
Sovietskaya Rossiya hard to say.
By the same token, the important Russian city of Novgorod should be
pronounced Naples! Why? Because the people who actually live in
Naples call it Napoli -- which is pretty close to what the Greeks who
founded it in ancient times called it -- Nea Polis or New City (which
is why we still say "Neapolitan" for the adjective). But Novgorod also
means New City (in Russian). So why don't we call Novgorod Naples? It
would be so much simpler, wouldn't it? Or am I confused about the
rules for these things?
Perhaps the ultimate confusion over foreign names, however, concerns
the word "Dutch". The English refer to the land of the Dutch
(Deutschland) as Germany and the people who call themselves Dutch
(Deutschen) as Germans. The people of Nederland (known to us as
Holland), however, hate the Germans (Deutschen) and call themselves
Nederlanders but the English insist on calling them Dutch! Beat that!
The English are however at least fair about all this: As well as
chronically insulting the people of Nederland, the English chronically
insult the Germans too in that they popularly refer to Germans as
"Huns" -- despite the fact that the Huns were Asiatic invaders of
Europe in ancient times who were the enemies of both the Germans and
the Romans and that it was a confederation of mainly German tribes that
finally defeated them. Perhaps we can be glad that the English do not
refer to the Hungarians as Huns. Since the Hungarians call themselves
Magyars, however, it is only a small mercy.
All is not lost, however: If a country is run by a tyranny we will
make an effort to pronounce that country's place-names correctly. For
instance, the Chinese Communists got us to say Beijing and Guandong
instead of Peking and Canton, the Burmese Generals got us to say
Myanmar and Yangon instead of Burma and Rangoon and the murderous Khmer
Rouge got us to say Kampuchea instead of Cambodia.
Perhaps there is also some shred of hope in the fact that English
people who have been to the Greek island of Rodos as tourists
invariably refer to it subsequently as "Rodos" instead of the "Rhodes"
that is shown on their maps. I am sure, however, that NOBODY else
will ever pronounce the name of the famous Polish city of Lodz the way
the Poles do. They pronounce it as "woodz" (as in our word "wood" plus
a "z" pronounced like the "s" in our word "measure").
At least we English-speakers are not alone in our dislike of using
foreign place-names for foreign places. For instance, Italians refer
to Paris as Parigi, the French refer to London as Londres and Germans
refer to Moskva as Moskau. You sure have to use the right map, don't
Finally, some more puzzling perversities, for most of which I have to
thank an internet author:
QUESTIONS WITHOUT AN ANSWER:
1. Why do they call it a TV set, when you only get one?
2. Why is the third hand on the watch called the second hand?
3. Why do we say something is out of whack? What is whack?
4. Why do "slow down" and "slow up" mean the same thing?
Also: "Drink it up" and "Drink it down".
5. Why are "wise man" and "wise guy" opposites?
6. Why do we sing "Take me out to the ball game" when we are already
7. Why do you press harder on the buttons of a remote control when you
know the batteries are dead?
8. Why is phonics not spelled the way it sounds?
9. If love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?
10. Why is bra singular and panties plural?
11. Why is the word abbreviated such a long word?
12. Why do we first chop a tree down and then chop it up?
13. Why do you say: "I saw it with my own eyes". Whose eyes do you
normally see with?
14. Why are the two types of horn in an orchestra called the "French
Horn" and the "Cor Anglais" when "Cor Anglais" simply means "English
Horn"? Would it not be more logical to say instead "Cor Francais" and
15. Why do we make our food "hot" with "chillies"? Shouldn't we call
16. And how confusing that a curry can be cold but still "hot"!
And some confusing pronunciation:
1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
2) The farm was used to produce produce.
3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to
present the present.
8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10) I did not object to the object.
11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
13) They were too close to the door to close it.
14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18) After a number of injections my jaw got number.
19) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
20) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
21) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
Some American disagreements:
(I am sure there are many more but this list comes from Jeff Jacoby)
One of the dividing lines in my home is linguistic. I eat *supper,* sit on the *couch,* and hand my wife her *purse.* She eats *dinner,* sits on the *sofa,* and carries a *pocketbook.* Somehow we manage to communicate across this terminological gulf, but our differences are a reminder that Americans don't speak one language.
The point is beautifully illustrated by Matthew T. Campbell's map of generic names for soft drinks, which is posted HERE. I grew up drinking *pop* in Ohio; my wife is a confirmed *soda* drinker from New York State. Somehow we ended up in Boston, where many natives still refer to any carbonated beverage as *tonic.* Then there are all those Southerners who say *coke,* even if they're drinking Orange Crush.
"How can anyone govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?" Charles De Gaulle once groused about the French. Something similar can be said about Americans. If we cannot even agree on the word for soft drink, is it any surprise that we're not "one nation indivisible" when it comes to politics and values either?
Let's face it - English is a crazy language:.
There is no egg in
eggplant or 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? 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
Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that
smell? 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, (or when it does burn to the
ground, it is said to have been "razed" to the ground!) 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 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.
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