English is a crazy language

by Richard Lederer [*]


Let's face it -- English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England really? or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that 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, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices?

Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annal? 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 preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue?

Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what 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 wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another.

Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable? And where are all those people who ARE spring chickens or who would ACTUALLY hurt a fly?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn't a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.


This was received from

Date: Thursday, 9 November 1995 9:41am PT
From: connie.davis@amail.amdahl.com
To: mdb-humor@cisco.com
Subject: English language

In the newsgroup listing the author was listed as "unkown", but then on 3 September 1997, I got the following note:

Date: Tue, 02 Sep 1997 19:20:07 -0700
From: Richard Lederer
Reply-To: richard.lederer@pobox.com
To: janlee@vtopus.cs.vt.edu
Subject: citation please

I'm always delighted to see my work so widely distributed on the Net. I do, however, prefer attribution. Your page "English is a Crazy Language" is a piece of mine.

The essay located at http://courses.cs.vt.edu/~cs3604/support/Writing/english.is.funny.html is an excerpt from the introduction to my book CRAZY ENGLISH (Pocket Books, 1989) For the full version, you may wish to visit the archives section of my site at http://www.pobox.com/~verbivore

Feel free to continue to use the piece with an appropriate citation.

I look forward to your response.

Richard Lederer

I am pleased to give this attribution after two years of use! Thanks Richard.


Last updated 97/09/03