“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? 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? 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? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? 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.”
— (via be-killed)
But, but, but!
But, no, because there are reasons for all of those seemingly weird English bits.
Like “eggplant” is called “eggplant” because the white-skinned variety (to which the name originally applied) looks very egg-like.
The “hamburger” is named after the city of Hamburg.
The name “pineapple” originally (in Middle English) applied to pine cones (ie. the fruit of pines – the word “apple” at the time often being used more generically than it is now), and because the tropical pineapple bears a strong resemblance to pine cones, the name transferred.
The “English” muffin was not invented in England, no, but it was invented by an Englishman, Samuel Bath Thomas, in New York in 1894. The name differentiates the “English-style” savoury muffin from “American” muffins which are commonly sweet.
“French fries” are not named for their country of origin (also the United States), but for their preparation. They are French-cut fried potatoes – ie. French fries.
“Sweetmeats” originally referred to candied fruits or nuts, and given that we still use the term “nutmeat” to describe the edible part of a nut and “flesh” to describe the edible part of a fruit, that makes sense.
“Sweetbread” has nothing whatsoever to do with bread, but comes from the Middle English “brede”, meaning “roasted meat”. “Sweet” refers not to being sugary, but to being rich in flavour.
Similarly, “quicksand” means not “fast sand”, but “living sand” (from the Old English “cwicu” – “alive”).
The term boxing “ring” is a holdover from the time when the “ring” would have been just that – a circle marked on the ground. The first square boxing ring did not appear until 1838. In the rules of the sport itself, there is also a ring – real or imagined – drawn within the now square arena in which the boxers meet at the beginning of each round.
The etymology of “guinea pig” is disputed, but one suggestion has been that the sounds the animals makes are similar to the grunting of a pig. Also, as with the “apple” that caused confusion in “pineapple”, “Guinea” used to be the catch-all name for any unspecified far away place. Another suggestion is that the animal was named after the sailors – the “Guinea-men” – who first brought it to England from its native South America.
As for the discrepancies between verb and noun forms, between plurals, and conjugations, these are always the result of differing word derivation.
Writers write because the meaning of the word “writer” is “one who writes”, but fingers never fing because “finger” is not a noun derived from a verb. Hammers don’t ham because the noun “hammer”, derived from the Old Norse “hamarr”, meaning “stone” and/or “tool with a stone head”, is how we derive the verb “to hammer” – ie. to use such a tool. But grocers, in a certain sense, DO “groce”, given that the word “grocer” means “one who buys and sells in gross” (from the Latin “grossarius”, meaning “wholesaler”).
“Tooth” and “teeth” is the legacy of the Old English “toð” and “teð”, whereas “booth” comes from the Old Danish “boþ”. “Goose” and “geese”, from the Old English “gōs” and “gēs”, follow the same pattern, but “moose” is an Algonquian word (Abenaki: “moz”, Ojibwe: “mooz”, Delaware: “mo:s”). “Index” is a Latin loanword, and forms its plural quite predictably by the Latin model (ex: matrix -> matrices, vertex -> vertices, helix -> helices).
One can “make amends” – which is to say, to amend what needs amending – and, case by case, can “amend” or “make an amendment”. No conflict there.
“Odds and ends” is not word, but a phrase. It is, necessarily, by its very meaning, plural, given that it refers to a collection of miscellany. A single object can’t be described in the same terms as a group.
“Teach” and “taught” go back to Old English “tæcan” and “tæhte”, but “preach” comes from Latin “predician” (“præ” + “dicare” – “to proclaim”).
“Vegetarian” comes of “vegetable” and “agrarian” – put into common use in 1847 by the Vegetarian Society in Britain.
“Humanitarian”, on the other hand, is a portmanteau of “humanity” and “Unitarian”, coined in 1794 to described a Christian philosophical position – “One who affirms the humanity of Christ but denies his pre-existence and divinity”. It didn’t take on its current meaning of “ethical benevolence” until 1838. The meaning of “philanthropist” or “one who advocates or practices human action to solve social problems” didn’t come into use until 1842.
We recite a play because the word comes from the Latin “recitare” – “to read aloud, to repeat from memory”. “Recital” is “the act of reciting”. Even this usage makes sense if you consider that the Latin “cite” comes from the Greek “cieo” – “to move, to stir, to rouse , to excite, to call upon, to summon”. Music “rouses” an emotional response. One plays at a recital for an audience one has “called upon” to listen.
The verb “to ship” is obviously a holdover from when the primary means of moving goods was by ship, but “cargo” comes from the Spanish “cargar”, meaning “to load, to burden, to impose taxes”, via the Latin “carricare” – “to load on a cart”.
“Run” (moving fast) and “run” (flowing) are homonyms with different roots in Old English: “ærnan” – “to ride, to reach, to run to, to gain by running”, and “rinnan” – “to flow, to run together”. Noses flow in the second sense, while feet run in the first. Simillarly, “to smell” has both the meaning “to emit” or “to perceive” odor. Feet, naturally, may do the former, but not the latter.
“Fat chance” is an intentionally sarcastic expression of the sentiment “slim chance” in the same way that “Yeah, right” expresses doubt – by saying the opposite.
“Wise guy” vs. “wise man” is a result of two different uses of the word “wise”. Originally, from Old English “wis”, it meant “to know, to see”. It is closely related to Old English “wit” – “knowledge, understanding, intelligence, mind”. From German, we get “Witz”, meaning “joke, witticism”. So, a wise man knows, sees, and understands. A wise guy cracks jokes.
The seemingly contradictory “burn up” and “burn down” aren’t really contradictory at all, but relative. A thing which burns up is consumed by fire. A house burns down because, as it burns, it collapses.
“Fill in” and “fill out” are phrasal verbs with a difference of meaning so slight as to be largely interchangeable, but there is a difference of meaning. To use the example in the post, you fill OUT a form by filling it IN, not the other way around. That is because “fill in” means “to supply what is missing” – in the example, that would be information, but by the same token, one can “fill in” an outline to make a solid shape, and one can “fill in” for a missing person by taking his/her place. “Fill out”, on the other hand, means “to complete by supplying what is missing”, so that form we mentioned will not be filled OUT until we fill IN all the missing information.
An alarm may “go off” and it may be turned on (ie. armed), but it does not “go on”. That is because the verb “to go off” means “to become active suddenly, to trigger” (which is why bombs and guns also go off, but do not go on).
I have never been so turned on in my entire life.
Are you Susie Dent from Dictionary Corner?
This is interesting