VOL. 1, 2008
THREE ON A MATCH
"I don't get it, Miss Gurney.
First you tells me to sit down
and now you tells me to sit up.
Can't you make up yer mind?"
Wanna be confused?
Try speaking our language
By SID FRIGAND
It is not customary for Almanac to receive three queries in one week on the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of modern English. We shall answer them together:
Q-1: Mr. Solomon Grundy, of Faith, S. Dakota writes: Why in heck cant we say feck and reck as the opposites of feckless and reckless? I think my fine teenage kids are feck and reck--if those were once acceptable words. Why do we accent the negatives and eliminate the positives?
Q-2: Ms. Marjorie Daw of Hope, Ark. writes: I am a French-woman now living with my husband in Arkansas. After three years in America, I am still very puzzled by your language. Words that seem to be opposites are not. I was told that undertake is not the opposite of overtake. And, even more confusing, a person who undertakes a course of action is certainly not an undertaker. Do you not have an official arbiter for English as we French do with the Académie Française?
Q-3: Mr. Jack Horner of Charity Island, Mich. writes: When we were little babies, one of the first things we were taught was the difference between up and down --remember the highchair lessons: hands up, hands down? That was then. Now hands up is a command at the point of a gun, and hands down means an easy accomplishment. In fact, sometimes up and down words mean the same thing. When we went to school, the teacher would ask us all to sit down and then remind us to sit upand drink up and drink down are synonyms. How do you explain all of this?
A: Let us begin by congratulating the good folk of Faith, Hope and Charity Island for their penetrating observations. To consider first the last question posed by Mme. Daw, the answer is no. English is not the official language of the United States* and there really isnt anybody that enforces the Kings English in the U.K. Of all the major languages in the world, English is uniquely unregulated by some official body. And so, words like reck and feck faded from modern use (although they are still accounted for in unabridged dictionaries moldering on the dusty shelves of public libraries). Want to call your kids reck and feck? Go to it, Mr. Grundy, they were real wordsantonyms of reckless and feckless. Englands virgin Queen Elizabeth would know exactly what you mean. While we are considering lost positives, remember hapless, shiftless and unless came from hap (a good old Norse** word meaning good fortune), shift (its old meaning connoted the ability to take on responsibility) and survives in the phrase to shift for oneself, and unless comes from a 16th century corruption of onless, a qualifier for not being right on.
Most puzzling are the illogical juxtapositions among English words with prefixes or endings such as up-down, over-under and in-out. Some quizzical examples follow:
up-down, e.g. before the shake-up came a shakedown; throw down a quart of red-eye and then throw-up; you can run up medical bills when you feel rundown; count on the sheriff to show up for the showdown; buckle up in the car and buckle down at school; live up to expectations and live down the past; a cop writes up a ticket after he writes down your license number; can you pin down the date when pin-ups became popular? Turn up at the bank and be turned down for a loan; a candidate can talk up his credentials while talking down to the plain folk; and yes, he can bring down the house if he brings up universal health care and old age assistance.
In-out, e.g.: the quarterback was all-in after his all out effort; if a comedian draws out his routine, hes not likely to draw in a crowd; when your legs give out, give in and sit down; two marines had a falling out just before they were falling in for inspection; the doctor promised to fill in all the details after she filled out some forms; he prayed silently awaiting the outcome of his income tax audit; she worried about how much her outlay would be for her dental inlay; he was sure that his in-laws were all outlaws; the director praised his outstanding stand-in, and everyone should know that in-house is not the opposite of outhouse.
Over-under, e.g.: work under a Mafia Don and you will work-over a lot of deadbeats; applying an undercoat while painting is wise, but wearing an overcoat while you paint is not; throwing overhand is okay for a pitcher, but he better not get involved in any underhanded arrangements; the same pitcher could also throw underhand and hand over the ball to his reliever; its difficult to write over crayon,
but is it easier to underwrite a loan?
Okay, get the picture? English is not logical language. Actually, it is a stew of many languages, ever-changing and spiced with words and phrases borrowed or bastardized from other tongues.** Simple English phrases become a linguistic United Nations.
We Americans are quick to swipe new words and phrases from our overseas experiences and street-talk. We use snafu (which was borrowed from a scatological and sardonic WWII military phrase) as a legitimate word that appears in our desk dictionaries. Other WWII borrowings like honcho (Japan) and blitzkrieg and blitz (German) hang on to suit our purposes.
Street talk is even more baffling: if something is clever or appealing, teenagers often say it is neat. More recently, they described a hot item as cool. And now, if someone or something is really good they call it bad. In the world of rap-talk, the word for prostitute is ho, so it is quite possible to cause confusion among gardeners if we say, a rake is attracted to a ho.
Professor Polly Hedron, Oxfords distinguished philologist, tells us that in primordial times, the British Isles were connected to the European land mass and it was easy for the Neanderthals to lumber westward in search of game, fish and chips. After the great flood made Britain an isle, crossing the channel became a challenging seafaring sport for invaders from all over the Western world. The indigenous tribes were driven to near extinction by fierce invading Gaels from northern Spain and southern France, who dominated what we now call the U.K. for about 500 years.
According to Dr. Hedron, relics of the ancient Gaelic tongues still hang on in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Other words essential to some Gaelic mores, continue to thrive in Modern English, she noted, Examples include clobber, smashing, smithereens and, oh yes, whiskey,
In 54 B.C. Julius Caesar, fixated about conquering all of Gaul, led his troops across the Channel only to depart after a relatively brief period, bored, homesick and bothered by pesky, pugnacious and near-naked Celtic warriors*** wearing blue body paint. Almost a hundred years later Cassius sent a larger force of Roman legions to subdue the natives. This time they hung around 300 years, long enough to establish trade and commerce--the center of which was a town the Romans called Londinium (sound familiar?).
The impact of Roman occupation left a lasting language legacy-especially in administrative, commerce and religious terms. The Roman missionaries, scared witless by the frantic antics of the Druids, brought Christianity to Britain to stay. So words like judge, legislator, priest, altar, mint and money are still with us.
Over the ensuing centuries, crossing the channel became a sporting event: the Vikings scooted over from Scandinavia-some hit and ran, some stayed on; then the Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes came storming in and decided to put down stakes in Britannia. To complete the onslaught, the Normans invaded in 1066 to further complicate matters. The manners and mores of the French Court leeched their way into the lingua franca of the peasantry. Farm animalse.g. swine, cow, calf --kept their Teutonic character, but put their cooked meat on the table and you have pork, beef and veal (all French derived).
To communicate in this polyglot setting the Brits, over the centuries, spoke an always evolving and easy speak language. Goodbye to Latin declensions, ta-ta Teutonic cases and numbers and au revoir to French genders for every noun. Written English was by and large phonetic. One scholar noted, for example, that William Shakespeares name was spelled at least 20 different ways during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Maybe there is some wisdom in not teaching a language for six or seven centuries: all kids were left behind.
* Henry Morgan, a witty radio commentator in the 1950-60 era, once observed: Whats all this blather about the Indians being the first Americans? They couldnt speak a word of English until we came here.
** During the 8th Century, the Vikings carried out countless invasions of the British Isles. They were there so frequently that the Brits, whose language was already a pot-pourri of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and bits and pieces of Latin, figured, What in hell, we may as well borrow their bloody words. So, for example, while the word shirt was already used to describe a garment, they also borrowed the same word in Norse, skirt and gave it to the ladies. Chances are, when you see a word starting with the letters sk we swiped them from the Scandinavians.
According to Dr.Webb Blogga, the distinguished historian from Norways Fjord Foundation, the Viking marauders were supposed to adhere to the famed Norse Code, promulgated in 712 A.D. by Erik the Rotten. The code was simple, Dr. Blogga explained; Pillage the villages, steal the cattle and rape the women. According to reliable sagas, Erik the Rotten beheaded an entire raiding party because they mixed up the simple tenets of his code.
*** British historian, Sir Basil Pesto, recently noted in his sprightly journal Back When: To Caesars chagrin, rumors got back to Rome that Caesar fled from Britannia, humiliated by two ferocious tribal kings, Patenias and Michenatis. When Caesar returned home and learned about these stories, he ordered his legions to capture the two warlords. After several bloody battles, the grossly outnumbered warriors were wrested into chains and hauled back to Rome in a donkey cart., Rather than being taunted by the crowds who lined the streets, the Romans cheered the two as heroes. Angered by their celebrity, Caesar ordered them to be jailed in solitary cells while awaiting their fate in the Coliseum, where near-starved and ravenous lions strained at their fetters to devour anything in sight.
The next morning, before tens of thousands of blood-thirsty Romans, the two warriors met in the middle of the arena. My friend Michenatus, how did fare last night? asked Patenius. Do you see that gorgeous woman sitting next to Caesar? his comrade in arms replied Well, she came to my cell after midnight, and without saying a word she stripped off her robe and--Oh, Ill finish the story later, here come them friggin lions!
This story Sir Basil wrote, was first recorded in 76 A.D. by the Roman philosopher/historian, Incubus the Elder. Sir Basil maintains that this account is the worlds first Pat and Mike story.
©2008 by Sid Frigand . The cartoon is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted March 10, 2008.
You can comment on this column online. Please address your message to either "The Editors" or Sid Frigand. To send an email, click here and don't forget to mention Sid's name: firstname.lastname@example.org
HOME About Us Index To
Talkback Contact Us