Worms, Roxanne, worms!

(Note that the title has nothing to do with this post, except in the most oblique sense, noted below*.)

I love words.  And when it comes to words, English is a treasure trove of the new and the old, the near and the far, the mundane and the magical.  That’s one reason why I read and write.  I read to ingest words, I write to digest them.  Herewith, some “stupid English tricks” that I’ve always appreciated.

One of my favorite peculiarities is the otherwise innocuous word “pest”.  In almost every case, you can change a “thing” to its associated action by adding “er” to the end: players play, runners run, and drivers drive.  (As far as I know, boogers don’t boog.)

Yet it’s quite the opposite with pest.  One who pesters is a pest.  Huh?

How are some word variations developed?  Why is something that can’t be explained termed inexplicable?  I can’t explic it, can you?

Some tireless and tiresome etymologist has probably plumbed the depths of such mysteries and shown the white hot light of logic on them, but where’s the fun in that?

One weirdness of the language is the fact that there are opposites of words that don’t exist.  Prime example: You can be nonchalant, but have you tried acting chalant?  (Even the spell-checker is confused.)

After mulling this one over for many years, I came across a story where this inconsistency was exploited to its fringes, as was perhaps every other one in the language.  It was an article called “How I met my wife”, published in the New Yorker way back in 1994.  The author was a guy named Jack Winter, of whom I know nothing, but who has, by sheer virtue of this one brief tale, been a hero of mine ever since.

You can still find it after all this time (hopefully) at the magazine’s web site here.

Enjoy your language.  That’s what it’s there for.

* The reference is from one of my favorite films, “Roxanne“, written by and starring Steve Martin.  In a particularly embarrassing sequence, someone mistakes the word “words” for “worms”.  It should come as no surprise that a Rennaissance-like genius such as Martin would also excel at verbal gymnastics.


About rickconti

It's not about me, remember?
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