Friday, June 27, 2008
For a conversation class for intermediate ELL students, I once had the seemingly innocuous idea for a theme of talking about foods that the students had never had before coming to the US. So I asked them to name some of the foods which seemed “exotic” to them.
“I love french fries,” exclaimed Mahmood from Bahrain. “When did the French invent them, Mr. Firsten?”
“They didn’t, Mahmood. French fries are American.”
“Oh?” interjected Pierre from Quebec. “They’re not French? Very interesting! Well, I love bread, and one of my favorites here in the US is English muffins. I really like them. I suppose they’re not English, eh?” he joked.
“Nope. They’re not, Pierre. They’re American, too.” The confused looks on the students’ faces said it all.
“You know, in my country,” said Clara from Peru, “we eat an animal that you have as a pet. I find that very strange. I don’t know the name in English, but in Peru they are cuy.”
“Cuy? Oh, those are guinea pigs,” I explained, a little proud of myself for knowing such a low-frequency Peruvian-Spanish word. “Yes, you’re right, Clara. Many children have them as pets in the US, but I myself ate one in a restaurant in Peru when I visited your country a few years ago. I must say it was very tasty.”
“What is the name in English?” Clara asked.
“Guinea pigs,” I said.
“Guinea . . . pigs?” she echoed. “Huh? But Guinea is a country in Africa. Do they come from Africa originally? I don’t think so. And what do you mean pigs? They are not pigs!”
“Yes, I know they’re not, Clara. They’re rodents.”
“Animals related to rats and mice.”
“Ugh! You eat rats, Clara?” asked Mahmood, looking totally shocked.
“Not rats! Cuys! They are very good to eat!”
Feeling confident that most of the students wouldn’t know what a guinea pig looked like, I googled it in my computer and found some good pictures to show them all. That turned out to be a mistake.
“My God!” shrieked Nuri from Curaçao. “They’re so cute! You eat them? Oh, my God! How can you eat them?”
Well, at least I didn’t have to worry about student participation in this conversation class. Everybody piped in with an opinion about Peruvian dining customs, and I was even mildly attacked for having participated in such an “uncivilized” act. I was very relieved when that class finally ended, I can tell you!
But it got me to thinking yet again about how nuts English vocabulary can be: french fries aren’t French; English muffins aren’t English; guinea pigs don’t come from Guinea ― and they certainly aren’t pigs. It’s unbelievable that I can stand there in front of my students and feel embarrassed about my own language, the language I’m teaching them! That’s why I’ve done a lot of thinking about English vocabulary and its strange paradoxes, and why I’ve written previously here about this topic, which seems to be a never-ending source of both amusement and angst.
So why shouldn’t I have you join me in pondering these imponderables? Some of the following come from my own musings, and once again, some come from author Richard Lederer in his book Crazy English*. I think I’ll let you share in my consternation over such thoughts as:
- Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
- Have you ever figured out the difference between sympathy and empathy?
- Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
- Do you realize how crazy it sounds to say something was awfully good?
- How can quite a few and quite a lot mean basically the same thing?
- When you garnish food, you add; when you garnish wages, you subtract!
- Is it reasonable for a language to be able to say that feet smell and noses run?
So ponder, people, ponder! And while you’re pondering and, I hope, joining me in this mild diatribe by sending in your own comments and observations, there’s one more gem I’d like to mention that kind of drives me batty.
To post a letter and to mail a letter are interchangeable, and until the politically-correct police got a hold of the following terms, postman and mailman were also interchangeable. So why isn’t it equally okay to say the post office and the mail office, or How much is the mailage? instead of How much is the postage? And finally, since we’ve got that relatively new expression going postal, can’t we also say going mailish? I ask you!
Well, before I go mailish over pondering too much, I’ll leave you to dwell on these thoughts and wait to hear what you’ve got to say.
*Richard Lederer. Crazy English. Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc). 1998