A Word on a Word

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A Word on a Word

In the spirit of the play full of words and writers:

starting this week, we include the first in a series of short essays on the delight and/or frustration of words!

Some four and a half billion years ago, give or take a year, a dwarf star spit out a planet called Earth. Some four billion two hundred million years ago, the first cell took a sip of sea broth and liked it. Then the first cell divided in two, so it would have someone to offer a drink. Some four million years ago and a bit, woman and man, all but apes, rose up on their legs and embraced, and for the first time experienced the joy and panic of looking into each other’s eyes while doing so. Some four hundred and fifty thousand years ago, woman and man struck two stones together and lit the first fire, which helped them to battle fear and cold. Some three hundred thousand years ago, woman and man spoke the first words and believed they understood each other.
            And there we are still: wanting to be two, dying of fear, dying of cold, searching for words.
                  Eduardo Galeano, Voices of Time:  A Life in Stories

Galeano is not the first writer to have noted the frequent inadequacy of language to convey information, much less emotion. Gustave Flaubert said, “Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” And while it’s true that words are often inadequate to express deeper feelings or thoughts, it’s also true that words carry mysterious associations, and often convey something beyond their literal meanings.

For example, we all know what a dormitory is. If you rearrange the letters of the word dormitory you can spell dirty room, which seems to be more than just an amusing coincidence. Likewise, if you rearrange the letters of the word astronomer you get moon starer. Finally, have you ever noticed that if you scramble the letters of the word Elvis you get lives?  I know, eerie …

The more one studies words the odder they become. For example, did you realize that there is no synonym for the word thesaurus?  Or that the word balloonneer is the only English word with four sets of double letters in a row? What do you make of the fact that no word in the English language rhymes with month, orange, silver, or purple?  We all know that last thing to happen is the ultimate. Many of us know that the next to last is the penultimate. But how many of us know that the second-to-last thing is the antepenultimate? The study of insects is called entomology, while the study of word origins is called etymology? Any idea what the word is for the study of insect name origins?

And what are we to make of the fact that there no eggs in eggplant, no ham in hamburgers, and neither pines nor apples in pineapples? English muffins were not invented in England nor were French fries invented in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads are meat.  Boxing rings are square.  Guinea pigs are not pigs and do not hail from Guinea.

We ship things by truck and send cargo by ship.  We have noses that run and feet that smell.  And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same thing, yet a wise man and a wise guy be opposites?  How can your house burn down as it is burning up?  And why do we fill in a form by filling it out?  When the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible.  Finally, why doesn’t the word ‘Buick’ rhyme with ‘quick’?

Whether these verbal oddities perplex, frustrate or delight (or all three!), they are part of what makes this language we call English so deliciously complex, so distinct, and so much like that couple Galeano contemplated on: ever changing, growing, and—we can only hope—evolving.


About the Writer

Tom Tyner is Western Division Legal Director for The Trust for Public Land.  He received his BA in English Literature in 1977 and his law degree in 1980 from the University of Southern California.  He is a former Board member and past President of the Bainbridge Island Land Trust. Tom was also a member of the Adjunct Faculty at the University of California Hastings School of Law where he taught a seminar in contract law. For ten years he wrote a weekly humor column for the Bainbridge Island Review, and his humorous writing on legal matters have appeared periodically in the Washington State Bar News.

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