By the time most youngsters are five, they’ve pretty much mastered the basics of their native language. In the case of English, they have absorbed and use correctly many usages and word choices that are frankly confounding. It’s pretty amazing, really, to listen to youngsters easily winding their way through the obvious contradictions in our language.
When I was in public school, we learned about homonyms–words that sound alike but have different meanings, synonyms–different words that mean the same thing, and antonyms–words that are opposite. We DID NOT learn that homophones were a type of homonym that sound alike but that have different meanings, or that homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Homographs that are also pronounced differently are heteronyms . Confused yet? Here we go…
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. (smart pig!)
17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
19) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
20) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
Heteronyms aside, we all know that, probably due to imports from other languages, changes in meaning over time and initial errors in fact or understanding, 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.
Quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
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, two geese. So one moose, two meese? One index, two indices? You can make amends but not one amend?
And 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? (Uh-oh!) In what other 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? Apparently, your house can burn up as it burns down, you fill in a form by filling it out and an alarm goes off by going on. And when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.
If you enjoy musing about the perplexities of our dynamic, -ever-changing, ever-evolving language, check out some of George Carlin’s work on You-Tube. And please share some of your favorite nonsensical words, expressions and contradictory, paradoxical English phrases here!