Shouldn’t cheese be the plural of choose? Must-read hilarious quirks of English language

Languages don’t have to always be rational, but English probably wins the irrationality prize



By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 21 Jul 2022, 6:00 PM

When I began my United Nations career back in 1978 on the staff of the High Commissioner for Refugees, an American classmate from my graduate school sent me an intriguing Christmas card. Reacting to my new-found humanitarian career with a reference to my eating habits, he asked: “If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?”

It was a clever question because it got me thinking about the vagaries of the English language that make such observations possible. After all, vegetarians eat vegetables, but humanitarians don’t eat humans. And that’s not all: writers write, but grocers don’t groce. For that matter, fingers don’t fing, dangers don’t dang and hammers don’t ham. You can say your teacher taught well, but you can’t say the preacher praught well. If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? If one goose leads to two geese, why doesn’t one moose multiply into two meese? Conversely, shouldn’t cheese be the plural of choose?

Languages don’t have to always be rational, but English probably wins the irrationality prize. If a delivery man delivers items and a bag man carries bags, why is a fireman someone who puts out fires rather than starts them? Why are goods sent by ship called ‘cargo’, and those sent by road on a truck or lorry called a ‘shipment’? Why do we put cups in the ‘dishwasher’ and the dishes in the ‘cupboard’? Why do people ‘recite’ (lines) at a play, and ‘play’ (music) at a recital? Why do you park on driveways and drive on parkways? Why do noses run and feet smell?

The names of things in English defy all logic too. There is no egg in ‘eggplant’ nor ham in ‘hamburger’; neither apple nor pine in ‘pineapple’. Sweetmeats are candies, while sweetbreads, which are neither sugared nor made in a bakery, are not sweet but meat. A ‘guinea pig’ is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. English muffins were not invented in England nor French fries in France. When you skip work without seeking permission, the English call it ‘French leave’; the French refer to an unauthorised or irregular departure (without a proper polite farewell) with the expression ‘filer à l’anglaise’ (or Brexit, in short!). The Dutch have no idea what ‘going Dutch’ means, turkeys cannot be found in Turkey and ‘Red Indians’ were neither crimson-coloured nor from India.

English is full of popular expressions that involve their own idiosyncrasies. If ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’, how do banks have ‘branches’? Why do they call it a TV ‘set’ when there is only one? Why do airlines offer ‘non-stop flights’ when passengers have to get off somewhere? Why do people refer to ‘rush hour’ when traffic moves at its slowest then? Why do doctors ‘practise’ medicine and lawyers ‘practise’ law? If they are still practising, when will they ever be ready? How can the weather be ‘hot as hell’ in the summer and ‘cold as hell’ in the winter?

The truth is that paradoxes abound in English. A ‘wise man’ is a fount of wisdom who must be taken seriously, but a ‘wise guy’ is the opposite. ‘Oversight’ can mean watchful supervision, but also an inadvertent error. When a house burns up, it burns down. You fill in a form by filling it out, and an alarm clock goes off by going on. If you find too many objects gathering dust at home, you can tell your maid that she needs to dust more so there is less dust. When you sanction something, you can give it permission, or you can ban it using the same word. Words do often mean the direct opposite of what they seem: thus ‘quicksand’ actually works rather slowly, ‘boxing rings’ are square, and a ‘slim chance’ and ‘a fat chance’ actually mean the same thing: no chance!

Just don’t look for logic in these English quirks. After all, what can you say about a language in which the word ‘funeral’ starts with the word ‘fun’? Or for that matter, when I ‘wind up’ my watch, I start it, but when I ‘wind up’ this week’s column, I end it…

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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