Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Some Musings on Language

A turn of phrase my mother-in-law used the other day got me to thinking – what an odd language we have. That is if you speak English. The phrase that got me thinking was, “leave the dog out.” Now for me at least, “leave the dog out” means that the dog is already out and we are not allowing the dog back in. My mother-in-law, a Cleveland native, means the process of opening the door and allowing the dog to go outside. Drives me nuts every time I hear it!

Another of my favorites (in the negative way) is the “hot water heater.” Why on earth do we need to heat hot water? Is there some reason we want to take hot water and make it even hotter? Why not just heat water to the temperature we wanted in the first place?

I could understand a “hot water cooler” which might be useful in some application where we are cooling down water to be reused as part of an industrial process (like a nuclear power plant), but a hot water heater? We don’t call a water cooler a cold water cooler. After all, what’s the point in cooling cold water?

Then there is the “driveway” – where we park. And the “parkway” – where we drive. What drunk dreamed those up? My list and expertise are not exhaustive as far as languages go, but I haven’t found any other languages where one can park in the driveway and drive on the parkway. It seems only possible in English.

The “near miss” – is really a hit. Think about it. If something almost missed, it’s a hit. Should it not really be a “near hit” if we are meaning to say that it almost hit?

Just some musings. Hey, it’s tax day…after enduring the crunch to corporate tax time, I then had my own to do…so now I’m just taking a deep breath.


sex scenes at starbucks said...

I've never heard leave the dog out for let the dog out. Hmm.

Can't think of any others at the moment. The brain is on hangover hiatus today.

J. L. Krueger said...

Too many wild parties or simply worn out? I've noticed you've lost a little "zip" of late. I hope things improve for you.

I'm really at that "really don't want to do anything" phase right now myself. But, I have too much to do and not enough time to get it done. Grrr!


sex scenes at starbucks said...

No, I went to a concert last night. One contemplative post and you think I've lost my zip, eh?

I'm happy enough--just bought four new books, yea! I'm going to read all weekend long, when I'm not at soccer games or church.

Ello said...

I always thought the driveway parkway thing was an English oddity. I know there are more of these but I just can't remember!

Stephen Parrish said...

"I feel like a hamburger" (instead of "I feel like eating a hamburger").

The error that rankles me the most is "I could care less."

The Muse said...

Oh J.L., my Nana had so many of those little language quirks that drove me insane...Of course I can't think of one now. She was a real pickle though!

We filed our taxes last month so we beat the rush.

Have a great day!

J. L. Krueger said...


You had a Nana too?


I've been told that the parkway/driveway thing is unique to English. My German is rusty, but I don't recall this one in German. For certain it isn't in Russian or Arabic (two languages that I am more up to speed with).


Glad you're happy. You're no fun when you're glum.


One of my new unfavorites is "went missing" which is now widely used in the press.

Another that is more likely to be heard in the South or rural areas is "fixin".

I'm fixin' to do something. Now round these parts it can mean that you are thinking about doing something, but might not actually do it. Or you are definetly doing it soon.

Finally there is the "heart blessing". "Bless his heart." Now, to figure the meaning, you have to pay attention to inflection and context, so it doesn't really translate well in writing unless you do a good job setting the scene.

Three possible meanings depending on inflection and context are: "what an idiot", "the poor thing", or "wasn't that sweet of him".

Stephen Parrish said...

Three possible meanings depending on inflection and context are: "what an idiot", "the poor thing", or "wasn't that sweet of him".

My mother used it for all three.

Here's another one: sports commentators describing a play as "well defensed." It hurts my ears.

When I worked in Louisville some coworkers referred to "those people" as "them peoples." After a few months of ear aches I used the term once myself, then decided it was time to leave town.

Erica Orloff said...

Having taught ESL for years, imagine LEARNING this nutty language. My poor friends! They would take everything literally and so much of our language really is . . . these insane colorful expressions. NOT meant literally.

Caryn said...

I know you wrote this a while ago, but I just had to weigh in my agreement. The phrase that bothers me is "The door is open". Some people mean it literally, while others simply mean that it's unlocked, so it has the potential to open easily. It's a pretty big difference to use the same wording.

J. L. Krueger said...


I know other languages have idioms that seem understandable only to native-speakers, but I agree that it seems English has more than others.


the door is open

And then there is the figurative meaning -- as in, "here is an opportunity".