We’ve lost too many of our favorite people lately, so I’m thinking it’s time for some cheering up. This space is comprised of words, and what is there anything more amusing than words? With the exception of sight gags like a pie in the face or a pratfall, every joke relies on words to get a laugh.
There are all kinds of interesting things we do with the English language. That’s why I write about it so much. Our language has never been more abused. I feel about language the same way comedians feel about Donald Trump. There is so much to ridicule and it is ridiculous to ignore all the malaprops, mistakes and misusages. Misusage, by the way, means both abusive and improper use.
For instance, have you ever noticed that certain words always come in pairs, as if they mean the same thing? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. We like to keep things pure and simple. We hope and pray that we’re doing the right thing, and, of course, we prefer to be alive and well instead of down and out.
This week’s weather reminds us that when it rains cats and dogs, you might find yourself vowing to make it home through downpours and on flooded roads come hell or high water— mostly high water. Unfortunately, it could cost you an arm and a leg— if not your entire body— if you venture down the wrong road.
Raining cats and dogs is something we say without considering its literal meeting. For instance, why does something controversial sometimes raise a hue and cry from an outraged public? Isn’t hue a color? I came to learn, with some research, that in olden days “hue” also meant shouting out, or an outcry, so I guess it does make sense, though it turns out, like many of these pairings, to be somewhat redundant. Then there is rack and ruin, which, unlike rack and pinion, has nothing to do with steering. If you have come to rack and ruin, it pretty much means things can’t get much worse. That’s a simple definition of ruin. One meaning of rack is oppression and torture, which may lead to ruin.
Some language purists don’t approve of some of those sayings and phrases we all use because, well, we use them too much. I would counter that they are used a lot because they are colorful and make an unmistakable point. The argument against them is that their colorfulness diminishes from overuse. We tend to value rare things more than plentiful ones, but does it also apply to words?
If you hear that someone is cool as a cucumber, as Jordan Spieth was this past weekend in the British Open or Tom Brady was in the Patriots’ Super Bowl comeback, you understand immediately. The only question is whether a cucumber is always that cool. Cucumbers, as we all know, seldom crack under pressure. Celery, on the other hand…
There are some well-worn expressions that may be used to explain away a suspected wrongdoing as happenstance. For example, if you are accused of consorting with Russians to win an election, you simply say you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. After all, it’s a free country.
Sure they may be clichés but everyone knows what they mean, and you don’t have to beat around the bush. By the way, the expression beat around the bush stems from hunting pheasants in Victorian England. They were seldom shot just flying or walking around. Somebody had to beat around the bushes to flush them out, and, yes, they were called the beaters.
Finally, I don’t consider myself a language snob, but there are the right and wrong times to abuse the language. In casual conversation, or just for fun, who cares if you get a little negligent with grammar and vocabulary? But when someone is on a public pulpit, whether a pastor or news anchor, you expect him or her to be reasonably literate.
Take the case of less and fewer. Never have so many said less so many times when they should have said fewer. If it is something that can be counted, it should be fewer. Calories and people are always fewer when their numbers diminish. If you have been on a successful diet, you have less weight to carry around and fewer pounds. If you lost an election, you received fewer votes and less support.
As for this blog, some might suggest that I could have made the same points with fewer words or less length.