“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” ~ Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
I love the English language. Don’t ask me why; maybe because it’s one of the few things at which I’ve truly excelled. I’m not particularly talented so, if you asked me to paint a flower, the finished product might resemble an ocean. Put me on the soccer field and I’m likely to bounce the ball and look for a hoop. But hand me a red pen and ask me to edit what you’ve written, and I’ll go to town! I suppose that makes me a grammar geek.
I remember in 3rd grade having this teacher who, in retrospect I realized, attempted to teach me the proper use of “Can” versus “May.” I remember more than once going to her and asking, “Can I go to the bathroom?”
“I don’t know. Can you?” she asked.
Standing there with my legs crossed and hopping around slightly because I’d waited until the last second to ask, I responded “I think so. That’s why I’m asking you. Can I go to the bathroom?”
Again she’d ask, “I don’t know. Can you?”
She and I would go back and forth on this several times before I’d finally just give up and say, “Well, I guess that means I can?” Invariably, she would fail to give a clear answer and I’d end up walking out of the classroom, only to spend the next several moments on the stool wondering why she had to be so difficult! Why did she keep answering me with a question? Did she think she was funny? I didn’t think she was very funny!
It was years later when I finally understood that she was trying to prompt me to phrase the question in a grammatically correct manner. May I go to the bathroom? You see, May I implies a request for permission, whereas Can I asks a question as in, “Is it physically possible for me to do so?” Now, why didn’t she just say so?
My love for the English language isn’t limited to the grammatically correct usage. Rather, it extends to include the fact that – not only is the English language difficult to learn and makes little sense to foreigners – some of our common words and expressions make absolutely no sense at all!
For example, my daughter’s former gymnastics coach was a native of Romania. He came to the United Sates knowing absolutely no English and, while he picked up the language very quickly, there were still some things that simply could not be explained to him. One day he came to me and asked that I help him understand “Figure out.”
“Figure out…it makes no sense. What does it mean?” he asked.
“Well, it means to puzzle through something.”
“Huh? What does that mean…to ‘puzzle through?’”
“It means to think about something for a long time until you finally understand what it means,” I said.
“I don’t understand,” he responded.
“You’re doing it now!” I said in frustration. “You’re trying to figure out what figure out means!”
Ugghh! Note to self: It is not helpful to define a word by its own definition. It just confuses things.
Now, think about this for a moment: It’s no wonder my Romanian friend had issues understanding “figure out.” It’s a stupid phrase. If English is not your native language and you’re using an English-to-whatever-language-dictionary to translate, then you’ll never figure out “figure out.” It makes no sense. “Figure” translates to the shape of a body, or a person seen indistinctly, or a mathematical equation (the last two of which aren’t even related definitions!). “Out,” on the other hand, means to be situated at a distance. Put those two together and you get a definition that means something like “the shape of a body situated at a distance.” Okay, then…I get his confusion. I “feel his pain.”
As much as I felt his pain, however, I couldn’t help but laugh the day I walked into the gym and heard him telling the girls, “Up your butt! Up your butt!”
“What in the world??” I thought. What was he trying to say?
As I watched, I realized that what he meant to say was “Get your butts up!” The girls were doing some gymnastics skill that eludes me (remember, I’m not athletically gifted) and he was trying to tell them to get their bottoms up high in the air. As a result, he was screeching, “Up your butts!”
Discreetly I pulled him aside and said “I don’t think that’s what you mean to say. I think you mean to say ‘Get your butts up.’”
The coach looked at me in confusion for a moment and said, “That’s what I said. ‘Up your butts.’”
“Ummm…no. That’s not the same thing.” As quietly as possible, I explained to him what he said versus what he meant.
“Oh!” he gasped. “Now I understand why they laughed at me! I thought they were being rude, but it was I who was rude!”
Typical teenage girls. Every single one of them was sniggering at his misuse of the English language, and not a single one of them let him know why. In their defense, it was pretty funny and I can totally see why they didn’t correct him. Would you have corrected him?
All of this leads me to my main point: as much as I love the English language, it’s really screwed up. Why do we have words with multiple meanings? For instance: their, there and they’re. Or how about: two, too and to. Why have three words that sound entirely the same but are spelled different with different meanings? Or stationary and stationery; capital and capitol; principal and principle…the list just goes on and on! Was this someone’s idea of a joke? You see, even native English speakers have a hard time!
Case in point: Last week my 7-year old son begged me to make hotdogs for dinner. It’s not something that we have often, but he’d had a bad day at school. The school cafeteria had served hotdogs for lunch and he’d dropped his on the floor, and the only thing that the cafeteria workers could substitute was a stale ham sandwich. That boy wanted a hotdog and he wanted it bad! Alas, it was in the cards that we would have hotdogs that night for dinner.
You have to wonder, who thought up the idea to call a wiener in a bun a “hotdog.” Or, for that matter, why is that potpourri of animal parts called a “wiener?” It just makes no sense.
As we were eating dinner that night, Braden points to the piece of meat on his bun and asks, “Mom, is this the wiener?”
“Yes, Buddy. It is,” I responded.
Suddenly he gasps loudly and says “Of the pig?!”
I rest my case.