Humor and stories for interpreters: Our crazy English language!1

David Bar-Tzur

Links updated monthly with the help of LinkAlarm.

various colorful punctuation marks

golden marble bulletWhile visiting London for 6 weeks to learn BSL, my host Roger Beeson, a BSL interpreter, encouraged me to read Watching the English: The hidden rules of English behavior by Kate Fox. In the section on "pub-talk", she reports a conversation between two regular customers and a publican (the keeper of a pub[lic house]) as follows:

"Regular 1: 'Where's meat and two veg, then?'
Publican: 'Dunno, should be here by now.'
Regular 2: 'Must be doing a Harry!'
( - All laugh - )
Regular 1: 'Put one in the wood for him, then - and yourself?'
Publican: 'I'll have one for Ron then, thanks.'"

She goes on to explain the meaning of this intimate discourse: "To decode this conversation, you would need to know that the initial question about 'meat and two veg' was not a request for a meal, but an enquiry as to the whereabouts of another regular called 'meat and two veg' beacuse of his rather stolid, conservative nature (meat with two vegetables being the most traditional, unadventerous English meal). Such witty nicknames are common: In another pub, there is a regular known as TLA, which stands for Three Letter Acronym, because of his penchant for business-school jargon.

One would also have to know that 'doing a Harry', in this pub, is code for 'getting lost', Harry being another regular, a somewhat absent minded man, who once, three years ago, managed to get lost on his way to the pub, and is still teased about the incident. 'Put one in the wood for him' is a local version of a more common pub-talk expression, meaning 'reserve a pint of beer for him, when he arrives', which I will pay for now'... The phrase 'and yourself?' is shorthand for 'and one for yourself?', the approved formula for offering a drink. The 'Ron' referred to by the publican, however, is not a person, but a contraction of 'later on'.

golden marble bulletThe origins and common usage of British swear-words. Please note: This entry discusses the etymology and application of a selection of words that, to varying degrees, can be considered vulgar or offensive. As a necessity, this entails the use of said words, and it is strongly advised that, should you find such words distressing or inappropriate, you do not read on beyond this point.

golden marble bulletEnglish accents and dialects. Not funny, but fun if you love accents. (I do!)

Illuminated letter What's UP?

There is a two letter word that perhaps has more meaning than any other two letter word it's UP. It's easy to understand UP, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we waken in the morning, why do we wake UP? At a meeting, why does a topic come UP? Why do we speak UP and why are the officers UP for election and why is it UP to the secretary to write UP a report? We call UP our friends, we use it to brighten UP a room, polish UP the silver, wewarm UP the leftovers and clean UP the kitchen. We lock UP the house and some guys fix UP the old car. At other times the little word has real special meaning. People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses. To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed UP is special, and this is confusing. A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP. We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP at night.

We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP. To be knowledgeable of the proper uses of UP, look UP the word in the dictionary. In a desk size dictionary, UP takes UP almost 1/4th the page and definitions add UP to about thirty. If you are UP to it, you might trybuilding UP a list of the many ways UP is used. It will take UP a lot of your time, but if you don't give UP, you may wind UP with a hundred or more. When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding UP. When it doesn't rain for a while, things dry UP. One could go on and on, but I'll wrap it UP, for now my time is UP, so I'll shut UP.

golden marble Burps. If you really have nothing better to do, you might want to check out the hundreds of slang terms for "losing your lunch", or not. Not for the queasy. Here are some of the less urpy examples: bring it up for a vote, clearing your throat the easy way, divulge dinner, eating backwards, feed your young, hiccup from hell, induce antiperistalsis, involuntary personal protein spill, liquid laugh, multi-colored yawn, and yawn for the hearing impaired.

golden marble bulletBoston English dictionary. Here's a sample: Bang - Make an abrupt left turn (see hook for the right-turn equivalent): "He went to bang a left and take a uey but lost control." For more normal turns, the appropriate word is "hang."

Illuminated letter Punctuation is powerful

An English professor wrote the words :
"A woman without her man is nothing"
on the chalkboard and asked his students to punctuate it correctly.
All of the males in the class wrote:
"A woman, without her man, is nothing."
All the females in the class wrote:
"A woman: without her, man is nothing."

golden marble bulletWorld wide words: Michael Quinion about international English from a British viewpoint.

Illuminated letter George Carlin strikes again

1. Ever wonder about those people who spend $2.00 apiece on those little bottles of Evian water? Try spelling Evian backwards: NAIVE

2. OK.... so if the Jacksonville Jaguars are known as the "Jags" and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are known as the "Bucs," what does that make the Tennessee Titans?

3. If 4 out of 5 people SUFFER from diarrhea...does that mean that one enjoys it?

4. If people from Poland are called Poles, why aren't people from Holland called Holes?

5. Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery?

6. If a pig loses its voice, is it disgruntled?

7. Why is a person who plays the piano called a pianist but a person who drives a racecar is not called a racist?

8. Why isn't the number 11 pronounced onety one?

9. If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed, tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed?

10. If Fed Ex and UPS were to merge, would they call it Fed UP?

11. Do Lipton Tea employees take coffee breaks?

Illuminated letter An interpreter's advice to the teacher

In promulgating your esoteric cogitations, or articulating your superficial sentimentalities and amicable, philosophical or psychological observations, beware of platitudinous ponderosity. Let your conversational communications possess a clarified conciseness, a compacted comprehensibleness, coalescent consistency, and a concatenated cogency. Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement, and asinine affectations.

Let your extemporaneous descantings and unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility and veracious vivacity, without rodomontade or thrasonical bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabic profundity, pompous prolixity, psittaceous vacuity ventriloquial verbosity, and vaniloquent vapidity. Shun double-entendres, prurient jocosity, and pestiferous profanity, obscurant or apparent!! And, don't teach with big words!

Illuminated letter I say. Say what? It can be socially disastrous for Americans and the British to visit each other's countries without carrying a table of phrase equivalents. That's because they use the same words and phrases to describe different things.

For example, the Brits wear "vests" under their shirts. Their vests are what the Yanks call "undershirts." Americans wear suspenders to hold up their pants, while in Britain suspenders push back one's teeth (the equivalent of the American "braces").

My favorite is the American "orchestra seats," which offer a close-up view of a play or concert. In Britain you would be sitting in the "stalls," something that Americans sitting in orchestra seats would repair to at intermission, or whenever nature calls.

Illuminated letter In response the Bernie Smith's comments, Hilary Seymour wrote me and said:

"I've just come to a piece on the 'Crazy English Language' page though - The Joy of Trivia by Bernie Smith. Very funny and mostly true - one small correction though - 'Americans wear suspenders to hold up their pants, while in Britain suspenders push back one's teeth (the equivalent of the American "braces").' No no no. In Britain, Suspenders are what women use to hold up their stockings! The writer is getting confused, because what you call suspenders, WE call braces, as well as braces being the things that push teeth back (which I thought Americans called retainers?!) - all very confusing! I know it wasn't you who wrote that piece, but thought maybe you might want to add the correction anyway.

Thanks for entertaining me!"

golden marble bulletRoutes of English. British site on the English language: Talking posh, people and places, accents and dialects, humour and cussing, evolving English, theme music, books and CDs.

Illuminated letter If GH can stand for P, as in "Hiccough",
If OUGH stands for O, as in "Dough";
if PHTH stands for T, as in "Phthisis";
if EIGH stands for A, as in "Neighbour";
f TTE stands for T, as in "Gazette";
if EAU stands for O, as in "Plateau";

Then, the right way to spell POTATO should be: GHOUGHPHTHEIGHTTEEAU

Illuminated letter The end of translation as we know it?

[Editor's note: So much fun is poked at the bizarre aspects of English on this page, I thought it only fair to include an article that shows its usefulness as well.]

Despite the protests of nationalists in Switzerland, France, Russia and other countries, English is steadily gaining ground as the world's new lingua franca. Is this globalization of language the first step toward obsolescence of our industry or merely business as usual?

ENGLISH ADVANCE UNSTOPPABLE? While some folks are concerned that the growing use of English will threaten what's left of national identities in European countries, most Europeans welcome the use of a single language. In one European Union (EU) survey, 70% of those polled agreed with the proposition that "everyone should speak English." In some European countries, English is even regarded as a second national language.

Switzerland, the poster child for multilingual societies, has become the latest battleground in the war over the language's dominance. According to reports in The New York Times and The Economist, some schools in Switzerland are now teaching English as a primary language before another one of the country's four official languages.

Maybe this is not a big surprise: the Swiss have a long history of using English to bridge language gaps. The Swiss advertising industry, for instance, relies heavily on English words and phrases to advertise Swiss products in all parts of Switzerland. It is estimated that 30% of all Swiss magazine ads use English, usually in a prominent position.

But it's not just English words and phrases that are being borrowed by other languages. In Italy, some members of parliament are concerned that the real damage is through the "colonization of syntax" and have issued a manifest to defend the Italian language.

MODERN COLONIALISM. Neither side in this debate shies away from strong language. The British Guardian Weekly in 2001 ran several articles on "the global English debate." In decrying the EU policy of linguistic equality and multilingualism as "ineffective and hypocritical," one author argued that these policies have been maintained largely because "the French with their traditionally superior position in Europe cannot accept the decline of their own linguistic power" and, to a lesser degree, because "powerful translators' lobbies fight for their raison d'�tre."

To anybody in the language business, the existence of a strong lobby is big news. Where can we find this lobby? But I digress.

France is the country that is best known for efforts to prevent English from diluting its national language. But despite government mandates, English has still crept into everyday use there. English computer and business terms in particular are often used over their French equivalents.

French purists take solace in the fact that they're not fighting this battle alone. Concerned that an invasion of foreign slang is corrupting the Russian language, the State Duma is considering a legislative crackdown. A bill drafted by the majority United Russia Party aims to corral the wandering Russian language and purge it of foreign and alien elements that have been picked up during the loose years since the Soviet Union's collapse.

ENGLISH AS BINDING AGENT. These language purification efforts run into the widespread belief that English is essential to doing business around the world. According to Global Business, the use of English in Hong Kong has declined sharply since the British returned the territory to China in 1997. This alarms business leaders and citizens alike who believe that, in order to continue attracting multinational corporations, English use must remain strong in the region.

The importance of English as the language of global commerce has led many global companies, including Nokia and Alcatel, to adopt English as their official operating language. Even at the United Nations, English is now the language of choice: when member nations were asked to name the language in which all correspondence to their missions should be addressed, the overwhelming majority chose English.

By communicating in English, organizations are able to be inclusive rather than exclusive. For example, e-mail threads often spread throughout organizations; and if the language shifts from Spanish to German to Italian, lots of people will be left out.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS. just as Latin steamrolled its way across Europe 2,000 years ago, crushing local languages in its path. so English has become the lingua franca of our times. Does this mean that the translation industry is on its way to becoming obsolete?

As an ever-increasing proportion of the global population can communicate in English, the need for some language service (interpreting, for instance) decreases. But this enhanced ability to communicate with others goes hand in hand with the globalization of trade.

In fact, never before has the demand for quality translation and localization services been so great. Companies and individuals who can offer real value to their clients will enjoy boom times for years to come, Far from being just one more nail in the coffin of the translation industry, the globalization of language presents us with unparalleled opportunities for growth and success.

Illuminated letter Our queer English language

We'll begin with box; the plural is boxes,

But the plural of ox is oxen, not oxes.

One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,

But the plural of mouse in not ever meese.

You may find a lone mouse, or a whole nest of mice,

But the plural of house is still never hice.

If the plural of man is always men

Why shouldn't the plural of pan be pen?

If I speak of a foot and you show me two feet,

And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?

If one is a tooth, and a whole set are teeth

Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?

If a singular this is a plural these

Should the plural of kiss ever be keese?

We speak of a brother and also call brethren,

And though we say mother we never say methren.

Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,

But imagine the feminine she, shis and shim.

Illuminated letter I lost my appetite!

If GH stands for P as in "hiccough",
if OUGH stands for O as in "dough",
if PHTH stands for T as in "phthisis
if EIGH stands for A as in "neighbor",
if TTE stands for T as in "gazette", and
if EAU stands for O as in "plateau", then

the right way to spell POTATO should be: GHOUGHPHTHEIGHTTEEAU!

Illuminated letter No wonder English is so hard to learn!

We polish the Polish furniture.
He could lead if he would get the lead out.
A farm can produce produce.
The dump was so full it had to refuse refuse.
The soldier decided to desert in the desert.
The present is a good time to present the present.
At the Army base, a bass was painted on the head of a bass drum.
The dove dove into the bushes.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance for the invalid was invalid.
The bandage was wound around the wound.
There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
They sent a sewer down to stitch the tear in the sewer line.
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
After a number of Novocain injections, my jaw got number.
I shed a tear when I saw the tear in my clothes.
I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
I spent last evening evening out a pile of dirt.

Illuminated letter Hints on pronunciation for Foreigners!

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough, and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead --
For goodness sake don't call it 'deed'!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear;
And then there's dose and rose and lose --
Just look them up -- and goose and choose,

And corek and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart --
Come, come, I've hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I'd mastered it when I was five!

Illuminated letter English pronunciation

                        Dearest creature in creation 
                        Studying English pronunciation 
                            I shall teach you in my verse 
                            Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse. 
                        I shall keep you, Susy, busy, 
                        Make your head with heat grow dizzy, 
                            Tear in eye your hair you'll tear, 
                            Queer fair seer, hear my prayer! 
                        Pray, console your loving poet, 
                        Make my coat look new, dear, sew it! 
                            Just compare heart, beard and heard, 
                            Dies and diet, lord and word, 
                        Sword and sward, retain and Britain 
                        (Mind the latter, how it's written). 
                            Made has not the sound of bade; 
                            Say, said, pay, paid, laid but plaid. 
                        Now I surely will not plague you 
                        With such words as vague and ague. 
                            But be careful how you speak, 
                            Say gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak; 
                        Previous, precious, fuchsia, via, 
                        Recipe, pipe, studding sail, choir; 
                            Woven, oven, how and low; 
                            Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe. 
                        Hear me say, devoid of trickery: 
                        Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore, 
                            Typhoid, measles, topsails, ailes, 
                            Exiles, similes, reviles, 
                        Wholly, holly, signal, signing, 
                        Same, examining, but mining; 
                            Scholar, vicar and cigar, 
                            Solar, mica, war and far. 
                        Camel, constable, unstable, 
                        Principle, disciple, label, 
                            Petal, penal and canal 
                            Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal. 
                        Suit, suite, ruin, circuit, conduit, 
                        Rhyme with "shirk it" and "beyond it". 
                            But is it not hard to tell 
                            Why it's pal, mall, but Pall Mall. 
                        Muscle, muscular, goal, iron, 
                        Timber, climber, bullion, lion; 
                            Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair, 
                            Senator, spectator, mayor. 
                        Ivy, privy, famous. Clamour 
                        Has the "a" of drachm and hammer. 
                            Fussy, hussy, and possess, 
                            Desert, dessert, address 
                        From desire - desirable, admirable from admire; 
                        Lumber, plumber, bier but brier/briar; 
                            Chatham, brougham, renown but known, 
                            Knowledge, gone, but done and tone! 
                        One, anemone, Balmoral, 
                        Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel. 
                            Gertrude, German, wind and mind, 
                            Scene, Melpomene, mankind. 
                        Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather, 
                        Reading, Reading (the town), heathen, Heather. 
                            This phonetic labyrinth 
                            Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, mirth, plinth! 
                        Billet does not end like ballet, 
                        Wallet, mallet, bouquet, chalet. 
                            Blood and flood are not like good, 
                            Nor is mould like should and would. 
                        Bouquet is not nearly parquet, 
                        Which most often rhymes with khaki. 
                            Discount, viscount, load and broad; 
                            Forward, toward, but reward. 
                        Ricochet, croqueting, croquet. 
                        Right! Your pronunciation's okay. 
                            Sounded, wounded, grieve and sieve, 
                            Friend and fiend, alive and live. 
                        Don't forget: It's heave but heaven, 
                        Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven 
                            We say, hallow, but allow, 
                            People, leopard, tow and vow. 
                        Mark the difference, moreover, 
                        Between, mover, plover, Dover! 
                            Leeches, breeches, wise, precise, 
                            Chalice, but police and lice. 
                        Shoes, goes, does; now first say "finger"; 
                        Then say "singer, ginger, linger". 
                            Real, seal; mauve, gauze and gauge. 
                            Marriage, foliage, mirage, age. 
                        Query does not rhyme with very, 
                        Nor does fury sound like bury. 
                            Dost, lost, post, and doth, cloth, loth/loath; 
                            Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath. 
                        Say "oppugnant" but "oppugns"; 
                        Sowing, bowing. Banjo tunes 
                            Sound in yachts or in canoes. 
                            Puisne, truism, use, to use. 
                        Though the difference seems little, 
                        Do say "actual" but "victual". 
                            Seat, sweat, earn; Leigh, light and height, 
                            Put, pus, granite and unite. 
                        Refer does not rhyme with deafer, 
                        Feoffor, Kaffir, zephyr, heifer. 
                            Dull, bull; Geoffrey, late and eight, 
                            Hint but pint, senate, sedate. 
                        Scenic, Arabic, Pacific, 
                        Science, conscience, scientific. 
                            Gas, alas, and Arkansas (the state), 
                            Balsam, almond. You want more? 
                        Golf, wolf; countenance; lieutenants 
                        Host in lieu of flags left pennants. 
                            Courier, courtier; tomb, bomb, comb; 
                            Cow but Cowper, some and home. 
                        Stranger does not rhyme with anger, 
                        Neither devour with clangour. 
                            Soul but foul, and gaunt but aunt; 
                            Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant. 
                        Arsenic, specific, scenic, 
                        Relic, rhetoric, hygienic. 
                            Gooseberry, goose, and close but close, 
                            Paradise, rise, rose and dose. 
                        Say inveigh, neigh, and inveigle 
                        make the latter rhyme with eagle. 
                            Mind! Meandering but mean, 
                            Serpentine and magazine. 
                        And I bet you, dear, a penny, 
                        You say manifold like many, 
                            Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier, 
                            Tier (one who ties), but tier. 
                        Arch, archangel! Pray, does erring 
                        Rhyme with herring or with stirring? 
                            Prison, bison, treasure-trove, 
                            Treason, hover, cover, cove. 
                        Perseverance, severance. Ribald 
                        Rhymes (but piebald doesn't) with nibbled. 
                            Phaeton, paean, gnat, ghat, gnaw 
                            Lien, phthisis, shone, bone, pshaw. 
                        Don't be down, my own, but rough it, 
                        And distinguish buffet - buffet! 
                            Brook, stood, rook, school, wool and stool, 
                            Worcester, Boleyn, foul and ghoul. 
                        With an accent pure and sterling 
                        You say year, but some say yearling. 
                            Evil, devil, mezzotint - 
                            Mind the "z"! (a gentle hint.) 
                        Now you need not pay attention 
                        To such words as I don't mention: 
                            Words like pores, pause, pours and paws 
                            Rhyming with the pronoun "yours". 
                        Proper names are not included, 
                        Though I often heard, as you did, 
                            Funny names like Glamis and Vaughan, 
                            Ingestre, Tintagel, Strachan. 
                        Nor, my maiden fair and comely, 
                        Do I want to speak of Cholmondeley 
                            Or of Froude (compared with proud 
                            It's no better than Macleod). 
                        Sea, idea, Guinea, area, 
                        Psalm, Maria but malaria. 
                            Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean, 
                            Doctrine, turpentine, marine. 
                        Compare alien with Italian, 
                        Dandelion with battalion, 
                            Sally with ally. Yea, ye, 
                            Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, hey, quay. 
                        Say aver but ever, fever, 
                        Neither, leisure, skein, receiver. 
                            Never guess, it is not safe; 
                            We say calves, valves, half, but Ralph. 
                        Heron, granary, canary, 
                        Crevice, but device and eyrie, 
                            Face, but preface and grimace, 
                            Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass, 
                        Bass (the fish); gin, give and verging, 
                        Ought, oust, joust, scour and scourging. 
                            Ear but earn. Mind! Wear and tear 
                            Do not rhyme with "here" but "ear". 
                        Row, row, sow, sow, bow, bow, bough; 
                        Crow but brow. Please, tell me now: 
                            What's a slough and what's a slough? 
                            (Make these rhyme with "cuff" and "cow"). 
                        Seven is right, but so is even, 
                        Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen. 
                            Monkey, donkey, clerk but jerk; 
                            Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work. 
                        Say serene but sirene. Psyche 
                        must be made to rhyme with "spiky". 
                            It's a dark abyss or tunnel, 
                            Strewn with stones like whoop and gunwale, 
                        Islington, but Isle of Wight, 
                        Houswife, verdict but indict - 
                            Don't you think so, reader, rather, 
                            Saying gather, bather, lather? 
                        Tell me, which rhymes with enough, 
                        Though, through, plough, cough, lough or tough? 
                            Hiccough has the sound of "cup" - 
                            My advice is - give it up.

Illuminated letter Once I was interpreting for a department meeting (in America) and the team manager was from England. When they met a deadline successfully she said, "Let's have a knees-up!" Everyone looked at each other and started to roar! My hands stopped in mid-motion, searching my memory banks for what that might mean. Afterwards they asked her what she meant. A "knees-up" is a party (not the kind of gathering the workers had imagined). When asekd for an explanation she said she thought it had something to do with dancing. As we are all aware, British English and American English have many words and expressions that are not common to both ("bollocks") or if they are ("napkin") have very different meanings between the two. Here are a long list of examples going both ways: England to USA dictionary and USA to England dictionary.

Illuminated letter Reasons why the English language is so hard to learn:

1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
2) The farm was used to produce produce.
3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to
present the present.
8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10) I did not object to the object.
11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
13) They were too close to the door to close it.
14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18) After a number of injections my jaw got number.
19) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
20) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
21) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Illuminated letter English Trivia

Stewardesses and reverberated are the two longest words (12 letters each) that can be typed using only the left hand. The longest word that can be typed using only the right hand is lollipop. Skepticisms is the longest word that alternates hands. [Burrell Gluskin adds: Sorry, and for the left hand alone what about aftereffects and desegregated? And, of course, sweaterdresses and tesseradecades �(a period of forty years). For the right hand alone, �your list should contain �polyphony and homophony and kinnikinnick (an Indian ceremonial food) and hypolimnion �(deep lake water). For both hands please consider antiskepticism, leucocytozoans (bird parasites) and dismantlement.]

A group of geese on the ground is a gaggle, a group of geese in the air is a skein. The underside of a horse's hoof is called a frog. The frog peels off several times a year with new growth.

The combination "ough" can be pronounced in nine different ways. The following sentence contains them all: "A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed. [Burrell Gluskin adds: There are actually twenty-eight different pronunciations of 'OUGH" of which ten �are common words: borough, tough, hiccough, nought, bough, trough, though, ought, cough, through. The other eighteen are uncommon and some are obsolete and/or dialectical.]

The only 15 letter word that can be spelled without repeating a letter is uncopyrightable. [Burrell Gluskin comments: Oops! What about dermatoglyphics (prints of the hands and feet)?]

Facetious and abstemious contain all the vowels in the correct order, as does arsenious, meaning "containing arsenic." [Burrel Gluskin adds: abstentiously (self restrained), facetiously, annelidously, and caesious (dark blue). Finally, if one is permitted to use a hyphenated word, "gathering-ground" could be added to the list.]

The word 'pound' is abbreviated 'lb.' after the constellation 'libra' because it means 'pound' in Latin, and also 'scales'. The abbreviation for the British Pound Sterling comes from the same source: it is an 'L' for libra/Lb. with a stroke through it to indicate abbreviation. Same goes for the Italian lira which uses the same abbreviation ('lira' coming from 'libra'). So British currency (before it went metric) was always quoted as "pounds/shillings/pence", abbreviated "L/s/d" [Burrell Gluskin comments: Okay. But what about oz. for ounce?]

The only nation who's name begins with an "A", but doesn't end in an "A" is Afghanistan.

Illuminated letter PThe longest word in the Oxford English Dictionary is neumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis n [NL, fr. Gk pneumo-n + ISV ultramicroscopic + NL silicon + ISV volcano + Gk konis dust] : a pneumoconiosis caused by the inhalation of very fine silicate or quartz dust. [Burrell Gluskin comments: Well, sort of. This word is actually a hoax perpetrated by the members of the National Puzzlers' League, the world's oldest wordplay association. The word is unknown to medical science. The League President (Everett M. Smith) coined the word at the 103rd meeting of the League, �held �on February 22, 1935 in New York City. It was picked up by a newspaper reporter for the HeraldTribune and printed the next day in the headline of an article on the League meeting. �Frank Scully, �author of a series of puzzle books and later one of the early UFO enthusiasts, read the newspaper article and repeated the word in Bedside Manna; The Third Fun in Bed Book (Simon and Schuster, 1936, p.87). On the strength of this citation, League members (with a wink from the editors?) got the word into both the OED Supplement and Webster's Third. And it is still there!]

Illuminated letter Honorificabilitudinity Obs. rare - 0. [ad. med.L. honorificabilitudinitas (Mussatus c 1300 in Du Cange), a grandiose extension of honorificabilitudo honourableness

The longest word Shakespeare ever used, is a variant of today's word. -Anu

Illuminated letter When the English tongue we speak,
Why is "break" not rhymed with "freak"?
And the maker of a verse
Cannot cap his "horse" with "worse"?
"Beard" sounds not the same as "heard."
"Cord" is different from "word".
"Cow" is cow, but "low is low.
"Shoe" is never rhymed with "foe."
Think of "hose" and "dose" and "lose",
And of "goose" and yet of "choose."
Think of "comb" and "tomb" and "bomb",
"Doll" and"roll" and "home " and "some."
And since "pay" is rhymed with "say,"
Why not "paid" and "said," I pray?
We have "blood" and "food" and "good."
"Mould" is not pronounced like "could."
Wherefore "done," but "gone" and "one"?
Is there any reason known?
And, in short, it seems to me,
Sounds and letters disagree

What about "cough" and "through" and "tougher"
Which don't sound anything like each other.
"Thorough" can be made to rhyme with "dough,:
But "bough" sounds like "cow" and not like "though".
"Draught" is spelled a lot like " taught",
But only one of them sounds like "bought."
We haven't mentioned "laughter" or "daughter,"
Neither of which is spelled like it oughter.
Everyone says that " might" makes "right."
So how come "eight" doesn't rhyme with "sleight"?
"Trough" can rhyme with "off" or "moth",
And on that note, I'll end this froth.

Illuminated letter 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 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? 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 preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

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 a wise guy are opposites?

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 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.

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 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. Why is "crazy man" and insult, while to insert a comma and say, "crazy, man!" is a compliment (as when applauding a jazz performance.)

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, the are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. Any why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.

Illuminated letter The Importance Of Correct Punctuation, Games Magazine (1984)

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy--will you let me be yours?



Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours,


Illuminated letter Fat chance and slim chance mean the same thing.

Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

There is a whole collection of words called "Janus-faced" or "contronym" words.


(source "Crazy English" by Richard Lederer)

WITH: a) alongside b) against
a) England fought with France against Germany.
b) England fought with France.

CLIP: a) fasten b) separate
a) Clip the coupon to the newspaper
b) Clip the coupon from the newspaper

FAST: a) firmly in one place b) rapidly from on place to another
a) The pegs held the test fast.
b) She ran fast.

BOLT: a) to secure in place b) to dart away
a) I'll bolt the door.
b) Did you see the horse bolt?

TRIM: a) add things to b) cut away
a) Let's trim the Christmas tree.
b) Let's trim the hedge.

DUST: a) remove material from b) spread material on
a) Three times a week they dust the floor.
b) Three times each season they dust the crops.

WEATHER: a) withstand b) wear away
a) Strong ships weather storms.
b) Wind can weather rocks.

HANDICAP: a) advantage b) disadvantage
a) What's your handicap in golf?
b) His lack of education is a handicap.

COMMENCEMENT: a) beginning b) conclusion
a) Beautiful weather marked the commencement of spring.
b) She won an award at her high school commencement.

HOLD UP: a) support b) hinder
a) Please hold up the sagging branch.
b) Accidents hold up the flow of traffic.

KEEP UP: a) continue to fall b) continue to stay up
a) The farmers hope that the rain will keep up.
b) Damocles hoped that the sword above his head would keep up.

LEFT: a) departed from b) remaining
a) Ten people left the room
b) Five people were left in the room.

DRESS: a) put items on b) remove items from
a) Let's dress for the ball
b) Let's dress the chicken for cooking

TEMPER: a) soften b) strengthen
a) You must temper your anger with reason.
b) Factories temper steel with additives.

CLEAVE: a) separate b) adhere firmly
a) A strong blow will cleave a plank in two.
b) Bits of metal cleave to a magnet.

STRIKE: a) secure in place b) remove
a) Use a firm grip to strike the nail.
b) When the show is over, we'll strike the set.

GIVE OUT: a) produce b) stop producing
a) A good furnace will give out enough energy to heat the house.
b) A broken furnace will often give out.

SANCTION: a) give approval of b) censure
a) The NCAA plans to sanction the event
b) Should our country impose a new sanction on Libya?

SCREEN: a) view b) hide from view
a) Tonight the critics will screen the film.
b) Defensemen mustn't screen the puck.

OVERSIGHT: a) careful supervision b) neglect
a) The foreman was responsible for the oversight of the project.
b) The foreman's oversight ruined the success of the project.

QUALIFIED: a) competent b) limited
a) The candidate for the job was fully qualified.
b) The dance was a qualified success.

MOOT: a) debatable b) not worthy of debate
a) Capital punishment is a moot point.
b) That the earth revolves around the sun is a moot point.

CERTAIN: a) definite b) difficult to specify
a) I am certain about what I want in life.
b) I have a certain feeling about the plan.

MORTAL: a) deadly b) subject to death
a) The knight delivered a mortal blow.
b) All humans are mortal.

BUCKLE: a) fasten together b) fall apart
a) Safe drivers buckle their sear belts.
b) Unsafe buildings buckle at the slightest tremor of the earth.

TRIP: a) to stumble b) to move gracefully
a) Don't trip on the curb.
b) Let's trip the light fantastic.

PUT OUT: a) generate b) extinguish
a) The candle put out enough light for us to see.
b) Before I went to bed, I put out the candle.

UNBENDING: a) rigid b) relaxing
a) On the job Smith is completely unbending.
b) Relaxing on the beach is a good way of unbending.

WEAR: a) endure through use b) decay through use
a) This suit will wear like iron.
b) Water can cause mountains to wear.

SCAN: a) examine carefully b) glance at hastily
a) I scan the poem.
b) Each day, I scan the want ads.

FIX: a) restore b) remove part of
a) It's time to fix the fence.
b) It's time to fix the bull.

SEEDED: a) with seeds b) without seeds
a) The rain nourished the seeded field.
b) Would you like some seeded raisins?

CRITICAL: a) opposed b) essential to
a) Joanne is critical of our effort
b) Joanne is critical to our effort.

THINK BETTER: a) admire more b) be suspicious of
a) I think better of the first proposal than the second.
b) If I were you, I'd think better of that proposal.

TAKE: a) obtain b) offer
a) Professional photographers take good pictures.
b) Professional models take good pictures.

IMPREGNABLE: a) invulnerable to penetration b) able to be impregnated
a) The castle was so strongly built that it was impregnable.
b) Treatments exist for making a childless woman more impregnable.

BELOW PAR: a) excellent b) poor
a) Her below par score won the golf tournament.
b) I'm disappointed in you below par performance on the spelling test.

DOWN HILL: a) adverse b) easy
a) When the source of the capital dried up, the fortunes of the corporation went down hill.
b) After you switch to diet drinks, it will be all down hill for your weight-loss program.

WIND UP: a) start b) end
a) I have to wind up my watch.
b) Now I have to wind up this discussion of curious and contrary contronyms.

golden marble bulletReturn to the table of contents for "Humor and stories for interpreters".