I may have been too enthusiastic in English Rocks, my recent piece celebrating the glories of the world’s favorite language. Upon further reflection, I now think English, a mishmash of slang and exceptions, is just a big hodge-podge.
How can anyone master the incomprehensible use of modifiers like “in, out, up, down around” and others. Let’s have a look-see. We can look up to a hero, look up a reference, look up at a bird. We can look down on someone or just look down at our shoes to see if we look sharp. Look around the store or look around the corner. Be a looker, but not lookie-loo. You can look out at the ocean, or — look out! — that dog’s looking to bite you.
And what does it say about us when our biggest modifier is the word “ass” which we use as a multiplier? Big gets bigger when the word “ass” is added. Dumb becomes dumber. Sorry, sorrier. There are exceptions: Jack+ass = donkey. And a smartass is a wise cracker, but not gluten free. For some reason, we say “cute as a bug’s ass” which is something disgusting that we wipe off of a windshield.
Let’s not get started on tenses. The past tense of throw is threw, but the past tense of row is rowed. Hit today, hit yesterday. Sit today, sat yesterday. I see, I saw. I flee, I fled. Make sense? Nope.
What about plurals? One hoof, two hooves. One roof, two roofs. Understand? One loaf, two loaves. One oaf, two oafs. Clear? One mouse, two mice. One house, two houses. One moose, two moose. One goose, two geese. One wish, two wishes. One fish — yahoo! — your choice: two fish or two fishes. Red fish, blue fishes. Good luck!
But our bizarre obsession with animals is the real elephant in the room.
Squirrels are nuts. Bovine are bull. Cats are catty because they have nine lives, but what’s that in dog years? The bee’s knees may be the cat’s meow, but still not as cool as the cat’s pajamas. There may be more than one way to skin a cat I just let out of the bag, but only if it was in a doggie bag.
I had a very fishy lawyer once. A pig-headed birdbrain. Total shark with terrible dog breath. I had to watch that vulture like a hawk with my eagle eyes when he tried to weasel me out of the lion’s share. Drank like a fish. Sly as a fox. Crazy like one, too. Told me to beware of foxy chicks who play possum like snakes in the grass. He was so batty I had to take the bull in the china shop by the horns and fish or cut bait.
Were you ever hounded over some red herring that turned out to be a fish out of water? I wouldn’t hurt a fly, but it makes me mad as a hornet when I open a can of worms. Being a fly on the wall gives me butterflies in the stomach. Sometimes it’s best to move at a snail’s pace to avoid getting squashed like a bug.
I’m not mousey. I refuse to be anyone’s guinea pig. My pet peeve is that sometimes I think the world is my oyster and I can’t even shoot fish in a barrel. My advice: Once all your ducks are in a row, go cold turkey on those wild goose chases and you’ll be happy as a clam.
They say a dog is mans’ best friend, but that’s probably just puppy love. Be careful! Many mutts all bark and no bite, but some are wolves in sheep’s clothing. And why do sleeping dogs lie so much? Oh, those lazy dogs! Why can’t we teach old one’s new tricks? If you birddog something too doggedly, you may bark up the wrong tree, screw the pooch and go straight to the dogs. (Especially during the dog days of summer.) Remember: You can dog ear a page you can’t page a dog.
So many questions. Can a cheeky monkey also be a dumb bunny? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, can a dirty rat ever be pretty as a peacock? Does a monkey’s uncle ever get ants in his pants? Did the chicken cross the road because he was henpecked? Can a silly goose be both a strange duck and a good egg? (If so, I’m too chicken to ask which came first.)
It’s hard to be strong as an ox when you’re busy as a beaver, but if you act like a deer in the headlights, nobody’s going to fawn over your crocodile tears. So, hold your horses. Say what you want about donkeys. Sure, they’re stubborn as mules. They may not have horse sense, but at least they don’t horse around.
How do English quirks compare to other tongues? My advice: Don’t try to compare apples and oranges. You’ll just go bananas.
See what I mean? English is for the birds.