Humor and Translation: Weird English

By Mark Herman

Before discussing Weird English, here are the answers to the quiz in the last column:

1) Miss Mississippi

2) Panama hat

3) Strength

4) Ten, three, seven, eleven, twelve, and seventeen. The third five-letter number, the trick of the trick question, is “ether.”

5) Facetiously

A notable cataloguer of Weird English is Richard Lederer. The remainder of this column consists of material by Lederer, taken or adapted from “English Is a Crazy Language” (personal communication) and “English is Weird.”1 It is reprinted here with Lederer’s permission.

English is the most widely spoken language in history, with the largest vocabulary (perhaps as many as two million words), and is used in some way by at least one out of every seven humans around the globe. Half of the world’s books are written in English, including some of the noblest literature in the annals of the human race. The majority of international phone calls are made in English. Sixty percent of the world’s radio programs are beamed in English, and more than 70% of international mail is written and addressed in English.

But the fact must be faced that English is a crazy language—the most loopy and wiggy of all tongues. For example: people play at a recital and recite at a play; a car may carry a shipment, but ships carry cargo; men get HERnias, but women get HYSterectomies; and privates eat in the general mess and generals eat in the private mess.

The sun, moon, and stars are visible when they are out, but lights are invisible when they are out. And you can turn a light out, on, and off, but not in. Night falls but never breaks and day breaks but never falls. The sun comes up and goes down, but prices go up and come down. The sun shone but shoes were shined. No daylight is saved during daylight saving time. And after dark is really after light.

The weather can be hot as hell one day and cold as hell the next, noses can run and feet can smell, hot dogs can be cold, darkrooms can be lit, homework can be done in school, nightmares can occur during the day and morning sickness and daydreaming can occur at night, you can eat with plastic silverware on a paper tablecloth, many bathrooms lack a bath, and a dog can go to the bathroom under a tree.

Tomboys are girls, happy hours and rush hours often last longer than 60 minutes, quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square, the third hand on the clock is the second hand, apartments are usually all together in a building already built, stadium seats are called “stands,” a single television is still a set, and the big finger is the thumb but the big toe lacks a name.

Diners wait for their food until they are served by a waiter. Yesterday, a person treaded water, then trod on the beach, and then flew out to see a baseball game in which a player flied out. If a television is a TV, shouldn’t a telephone be a TP? If a pronoun replaces a noun, shouldn’t a proverb replace a verb? Why is homework so different from housework, and a wise man so different from a wise guy?

It’s impossible to oversee a project while overlooking it. Actors act on television, which people watch, but they act in movies, which people usually see. Pricey objects are usually less expensive than priceless ones, and valuable objects are usually less valuable than invaluable ones. If a man has hair on his head, he has more hair than a man with hairs on his head. People who are always bad are bad for good. If you slept like a baby, you probably woke up every two hours and cried.

A near miss is logically a collision, and a close call is logically a near hit. A hot cup of coffee is a cup of hot coffee. Operators who are standing by are probably sitting. The first century BCE was actually the last century BCE. “Preplan,” “preboard,” and “prerecord” mean “plan,” “board,” and “record.”

Do you want to have your cake and eat it too? No! You want to eat the cake and then still somehow have it, in that order. And you can’t go back and forth. You have to go forth before you can go back. If you object to something done behind your back, would you rather that it be done in front of your back? A person can wear a pair of pants but, except on very cold days, not a pair of shirts.

“Watch your head” often appears on low doorways. But unless there is also a mirror there, I defy anyone to do it. If a couple is head over heels in love, that’s nice, but ordinary. It would be really remarkable if they were heels over head in love. You can’t put your best foot forward unless you have three feet. With only two, you have to put your better foot forward. Similarly, in a two-team contest, may the better team win. And only one book at a time can be a bestseller.

Six, seven, eight, and nine times ten are sixty, seventy, eighty, and ninety, but two, three, four, and five times ten are not twoty, threety, fourty, and fivety. First-degree murder is more serious than third-degree murder, but a third-degree burn is more serious than a first-degree burn. And “lead” rhymes with “read” and “lead” also rhymes with “read.”

“Phonetic” is not spelled phonetically, the spelling of “mnemonic” is hard to remember, “abbreviation” is a relatively long word, as is “diminutive,” and “monosyllabic” has five syllables.

Some synonyms are logical opposites: a slim chance and a fat chance, a caregiver and a caretaker, to best someone and to worst someone, a bad licking and a good licking, sharp speech and blunt speech, quite a lot and quite a few, loosen and unloosen, shameful behavior and shameless behavior, flammable and inflammable, a house burning up and a house burning down, slowing up and slowing down, an alarm going off and an alarm going on, filling in a form and filling out a form, being vaccinated for COVID and being vaccinated against COVID.

Some words that are logical opposites are neither antonyms nor synonyms: hardly and softly, upright and downright, pertinent and impertinent, canny and uncanny, and famous and infamous.

Understanding spoken words can be difficult when homonyms are opposite in meaning: raise and raze, reckless and wreckless.

The U.S. and the U.K. are two countries, as George Bernard Shaw famously said, separated by a common language: football, knock you up, and keep your pecker up.

People who leave out a necessary negative confuse the language even further: “I could care less,” meaning “I couldn’t care less,” or those who put one in: “I really miss not seeing you,” meaning “I really miss seeing you,” or saying “literally” when they mean “metaphorically” (e.g., “The show kept me literally glued to my seat,” “The show was so funny I was literally rolling in the aisles,” and “The show was so sad that I was literally drowning in tears.”).

Sex has produced its share of euphemisms, some of which are so common that they are unnoticed. For instance, people rarely stand during a one-night stand, or sleep when they sleep with someone.

Some English words are usually paired with other words: beck and call, nook and cranny, hue and cry, might and main, kit and caboodle, spick and span, fine fettle, taken aback, short shrift, filthy lucre, innocent bystanders, strange bedfellows, one fell swoop, vent one’s spleen, boggle one’s mind, cast aspersions. It would be nice to be able to vent one’s liver, boggle one’s heart, or toss aspersions.

Some expressions are never singular. Why can’t we make an amend, pull a shenanigan, be in a doldrum, eat an egg Benedict, smash something to a smithereen, sell off all but one odd and end in a garage sale, or get just one jitter, willy, delirium tremen, or heebie-jeebie?

Finally, some ideas exist only in the negative. People are not combobulated, sheveled, gruntled, chalant, plussed, ruly, gainly, or peccable. Nor are there many who would hurt a fly, who are great shakes, or whom you would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Notes

  1. Lederer, Richard. “English is Weird,” Funny Times (October 2021), 22.

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Submit items for future columns via e-mail to mnh18@columbia.edu. Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

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