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Crazy English

English may be cool, but it’s also crazy.  Part of the problem with learning English is accounted for by this very fact.  Consider for a moment that according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word ‘misnomer’ means the ‘use of a wrong or inappropriate name’ when naming something. In this respect, such words and terms as driveway and parkway; eggplant and hamburger; sweetmeats and sweetbreads; English muffins and French fries, as well as boxing ring and starfish are all misnomers.  Why, because in English we ‘drive cars on parkways’ and ‘park cars on driveways’.  There is no ‘egg’ in eggplant just as there is no ‘ham’ in hamburger.  Sweetmeats are ‘candies’ and sweetbreads are ‘meats’. English muffins didn’t come from England nor did French fries come from France. And should it not be obvious boxing rings are square and starfish are not fish at all.  And should you now be wondering if Panama hats come from Panama, India ink from India and Chinese checkers from China, the answer is a resounding ‘No’.  And lest it go unsaid, these are only a few of the hundreds of misnomers in the English language.

So how did English become so crazy?  The answer to this question is not simple to answer as there are too many reasons for this one article to list. However, some of the more popular explanations are as follows.

Some misnomers are holdovers from an earlier time.  Such words as lead pencil, tin can, steamroller and clothes iron are all holdovers from the ‘good old days’.  Essentially, old names were retained for convenience.  One truly British example are the well-known May balls (evening parties) and May Bumps (boat races) hosted by Cambridge University each year. Neither occurs in May but rather in May week which, by the way, is in the second week of June. 

Words such as Kleenex (in place of tissue), Xerox (in place of photocopy) and Memory stick (in place of flash drive) are all the result of using well-known product names in place of common generic names.

Sometimes misnomers result from popular misconceptions even though there is scientific evidence to the contrary.  Koala bears are not actually bears; rather they are marsupials and therefore related to kangaroos.  And in that sense, fireflies are not flies (they’re beetles) and palm trees are not really trees (they’re grass).  And just to set the record straight, shooting stars are actually meteors, not stars. 

Finally, we have a group of misnomers which almost defy explanation.  Hitting your ‘funny bone’ hurts and is not funny.  And while we’re on the subject, your funny bone is not a bone.  And how is it possible for our nose ‘to run’ and our feet ‘to smell’.  Is it really true that a shipment is ‘sent by car’ while cargo is ‘sent by ship’.  And in what other language could people ‘recite at a play’ and ‘play at a recital’.

So there you have it.  English is a truly amazing language.  It’s full of misnomers paradoxes and verbal contradictions, yet it is loved by millions.  What more can I say?  The time has come for me to ‘wind up’ this article . . . and speaking of time, I’d better ‘wind up’ my watch while I’m at it.  And if it hasn’t occurred to you, guess which one means ‘to finish’ and which one means ‘to start’.

Yipes! I think English has got me coming and going!    

By Rob Jensky,
Director of Language Link School

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