Friday, May 2, 2008

May I Have a Word? Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

When I first started my blog, I thought it would be fun to delve into some of the challenging offerings of English vocabulary. I shared with you some of the more daunting questions about words and phrases that have caught my attention over the years. As I mentioned in that first piece, “May I Have a Word” (which is included in my first entry, “Welcome to My Blog”), there’s nothing quite as uncomfortable as being ambushed by a question such as “What’s the difference between electric and electrical?” (And please, let’s not add electronic to the mix!)

Well, I’m not finished. I still have lots of words and phrases that make me pause and ponder. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was asked by one of my students why it is that we have two words to distinguish some living animals from their meat, but we don’t do that for all of them. I stared blankly at my student, not quite sure what he was talking about. Recognizing that needy look on my face, the student offered an example: “You know, like cow and beef.” “Oh!” I said. “Now I get it!” So I listed the four most common domestic animals and meats as examples on the board:

  • cow → beef
  • calf → veal
  • sheep → mutton
  • pig → pork

That was all well and good, but could I explain the reason for this? It just so happened that I could! I remembered back to when I had taken a course on the history of the English language. The Saxon peasants served the Norman aristocrats in 12th century England, and the vocabulary from the two languages (Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) started to mix at that time. It so happens that when those animals were slaughtered, butchered, and their meat brought into the kitchens, the Saxon workers called them by their Anglo-Saxon names (cow, calf, sheep, and pig), but that when their meat was cooked and brought into the dining room for the Norman aristocrats to munch on, their Norman French names were used (beef, veal, mutton, and pork). That differentiation stuck through all these centuries, and that’s why we still have different words for those animals and their meat.

But then I got ambushed. Another student with a big grin on her face asked me, “Why is chicken the same word for the animal and the meat?” And another student piped up with “What about lamb and goat? Total silence fell over the room as the students awaited my answers. It was the kind of silence that precedes a great explosion or clap of thunder as a storm begins. I don’t particularly like being ambushed in class, but it’s an occupational hazard, I guess. So there I was, left holding the bag ― which, by the way, was an idiomatic expression I taught the students right then and there. It was one of those “teachable moments” I’d learned about in one of those education courses I’d taken so many years before.
Yes, I was left holding the bag. I had no idea how to respond to those questions. All I could do was fess up to my students and tell them I’d try to find the answers. Well, I still haven’t. If you’ve got the answers, please let me know!

Getting back to more of those words and phrases I’ve pondered over from time to time, here are more that I’d like to share with you, some of which come from my own head, and some from the head of authors such as Richard Lederer*. Please think about them. I think you should join me in wondering about these little gems of the language.

  • How do you distinguish between to die of something and to die from something?
  • Does quicksand really work quickly?
  • We ship by truck, but we send cargo by ship, right?
  • If the stars are out, they’re visible, but if the lights are out, they’re invisible!
  • Why do we recite at a play, but play at a recital?
  • If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
  • I know what a gate is; that opening in a fence that I can go through. And I know what a door is, too. Well then, why do we call the thing you pass through at the airport when boarding a plane a gate when it’s a door? I’ve never seen a fence there, have you?
  • If there are proper nouns, are there also improper nouns?
  • Grapefruit. A grape is already a fruit, so why is this called a grapefruit?
  • For that matter, if tuna is already a fish, why do lots of people say tuna fish? Does this have any connection by analogy to grapefruit?

Help me out here, folks. If you’ve got any sage responses to my ponderings, please send them in.

*Richard Lederer. Crazy English. Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc.). 1998


Comment from Bhaskar Vijay Singh
May 3, 2008 at 3:10 am

“How do you distinguish between to die of something and to die from something?”
I have always been taught that if you ‘die from’ something then you are somewhat responsible for your death. For instance, ‘You can die from smoking’.
While, if you ‘die of’ things like natural disasters or accidents.

Anyways, I thoroughly enjoy your journal.

Comment from Grammar Guy
May 3, 2008 at 8:29 am

Thank you very much, Bhaskar!

On the iffy topic of “die of” vs. “die from,” many people feel that “die of” is used with natural causes (He died of old age. / She died of pneumonia), while “die from” goes with external causes (He died from his injuries. / She died from exposure to too much radiation).

But it seems that in reality, native speakers tend to mix these two quite frequently and don’t really perceive a big difference between them when talking about natural causes (She died of/from pneumonia).

As with many elements of English, it’s not so easy to find definitive answers.

Thanks again for leaving a comment. Glad to have you visit!


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