I would like to share some curious observations of life with you. Our English language prides itself on its vast vocabulary and verbal versatility. There seems to be a word for almost everything, and if there isn’t a term for something, someone usually comes up with a way to convey it, except for possibly a few things.
There are third-person pronouns for all three genders: masculine (he, him, his), feminine (she, her, hers) and neuter (it, its). But so often we need to refer to someone of indeterminate or common gender, and in English there is no specific, unique pronoun for that purpose. We always have to say “he or she” or the written contractions “he/she,“ “s/he” or “(s)he.”
For that reason I have adopted the gender non-specific, third-person plural pronoun “they” (also them, themself and their where applicable) to take the place of “he or she” whenever it occurs in any of my blog articles. The Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, French, etc.) practice a similar convention. It has been commonly acceptable in English to use the masculine pronouns for this purpose, but I choose not to do that because it is sexist and not all-inclusive. I make every attempt to be non-sexist, whenever possible, in my speech and my writing. Whenever I do happen to use Man or Woman as a general reference, I mean those words specifically.
There is also no gender non-specific word for nephews and nieces, collectively. We can use “children” or “offspring” to refer to sons and daughters, “siblings” to refer to brothers and sisters, and “cousins” can be either male or female, but we don’t have one word to convey “the sons and daughters of one’s brothers and/or sisters.” For that matter, there is no one word for the “brothers and sisters of one’s mother and/or father” either. We always have to say “aunts and uncles.” A person who loses a spouse to death is referred to as a widow or widower, and a child without parents is called an orphan. But, although it is a common occurrence, there is no word for a parent who loses a child.
The English language is loaded with verbal contradictions, oxymora, incongruities, redundancies, misnomers, etc. Here’s one: military intelligence. (Yeah, right.) The phrase “buying on credit” is an oxymoron. When you get something on credit, you haven’t bought it until you actually pay for it with real money. “I bought a new car today.“ No, you charged a new car. You didn’t pay cash for it, did you? That is one of the causes of our current economic crisis, people irresponsibly charging things for which they don’t have the ready cash, sometimes with no intention of paying their bills. Possession is not a true indication of one’s wealth. Just because they live in a mansion and drive a fancy car doesn’t mean that they’re paid for or that they have the money for their upkeep.
There are these redundancies: criminal lawyer; war crime(s)—I consider war in itself to be a crime; sugar cookie—I contend that every cookie is a sugar cookie. A cookie without sugar is a cracker. I heard a movie character being described as an undercover assassin. What assassin does not work undercover? No one has ever admitted it to me. ’So, what do you do, Ed?’ “Don’t you know? I kill people for a living.” ’Oh.’ The ones more often guilty of “insurance fraud” are the insurance companies themselves.
Note these superfluous phrases. Honcho is a Japanese word for squad leader or boss. So “head honcho” is superfluous. That means that they are the top boss as opposed to the subordinate boss? The Bantu word for fly is tsetse. Adding the “fly” only denotes what it is. Natives refer to that vast dry region in North Africa as the Sahara, which is Arabic for “desert.“ It must have been somebody else who started calling it the Sahara Desert. Similarly, la brea is the Spanish word for tar, so that location in Los Angeles could be referred to as “The Tar Tar Pits.” The V in HIV stands for “virus,” so the phrase “HIV virus” is superfluous. I hear people say that all the time. I’ve even seen it in print. They do it, too, with the “ADAP program” (AIDS Drug Assistance Program), ATM Machine (Automated Teller Machine), IRA account (Individual Retirement Account), MCC Church (Metropolitan Community Church), PIN number (Personal Identification Number), “SALT talks” (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), “VCR recorder” (videocassette recorder), and how about those TCBY yogurt parlors—The Country’s Best Yogurt yogurt?!
There are two words commonly used, although a bit archaic, that most people apparently don’t know the real meaning of. They are whence and wherefore. The first one certainly does not mean when. Whence means “from what place, source or cause; from where.” So the oft-quoted Bible verse, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help” is wrong! The “from” is unnecessary as it is included in the adverb. “Whence did you come to New York, young man?” “I am from Paris via Montreal.” Okay.
Wherefore does not mean where, as many think, but rather “why, for what reason or purpose?” “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” “Here I am, Juliet!” No, that’s not right! She is not inquiring about her lover’s whereabouts. There is no comma after “thou.” She is pondering why must he be a cursed Montague, a member of the rival family to hers, the Capulets? “Deny your father and refuse his name, and I will do the same.” “Wherefore are you going?” “Because I’ve had enough. I’m getting out.” Ah, so.
How are these for some confused misnomers? Motorists drive on a parkway but park in a driveway. Performers recite in a play but play in a recital. A lot of merchandise is shipped by ground vehicles but cargo is sent by ship. Our noses run and our feet smell. Boxing rings are square. Sweetmeats are candies, not meat, while sweetbreads, which is neither bread nor sweet, is meat. An eggplant does not contain egg nor resemble one, and a pineapple is neither pine nor apple. An English horn is neither English nor is it a horn, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
The Australian koala is often erroneously called a “koala bear,“ I suppose because it resembles a cuddly teddy bear. But it is not a bear at all, but a marsupial. And a panda is not a bear either. It only resembles one. It is its own unique species of carnivores. What does not have an etymological resemblance, however, are the caterpillar, derived from the Old French chatepelose, meaning “hairy cat” and a dandelion from the Old French, dent de lion, means “tooth of the lion.” When I see a dandelion, a lion’s tooth is not the first thing it reminds me of. And how does a fuzzy worm suggest any kind of cat? From personal experience, they did get one right, though. A sweatshirt is really that!
Some donut franchises sell a little item known as a “donut hole.” To avoid wasting them (which is to be commended), the dough that is taken out of the center of a doughnut is cooked, just like the rest of the thing, and then powdered, frosted or coated and sold as a separate confection. But how can it be a hole? The hole is the part that is missing. One can’t eat a hole. It’s really the “donut center.” Some companies have realized the incongruity and now call them “Donut Balls,” “Munchkins” and “Pop-ems.” “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.“ Sure, you can. You must have it before you can eat it. The proverb should go, “You can’t eat your cake and still have it, too,“ meaning, once you’ve eaten it, it’s gone.
Airlines advertise “nonstop” flights. What they really mean is that the flight is direct from one place to the next. I mean, it has to stop at some point, doesn’t it? It’s not the Flying Dutchman. “This door shall remained closed at all times.“ That’s not a door then. That’s just a wall with a knob or handle on it. “This John Doe was identified from his dental records.“ But if they don’t know who the person is, how do they know who his dentist is? The slogan used in Raid insecticides commercials and ads is “It kills bugs DEAD!” As opposed to what? Isn’t the subsequent result of killing something, death? But maybe the advertisers are just trying to be funny. “All-new episode tonight!” As opposed to what, partially-new?
This is for any baseball enthusiasts. When a pitcher manages to strike everybody out, resulting in no hits, no runs and no score, it is referred to as a “perfect game.“ I would think that people attend and watch baseball games for the actual plays, that is, hits, home runs, field catches and throws. So if none of these things happen and nobody gets to do anything, how is that a perfect game? That’s no game at all! That would be like going to a concert and no music is made. We all just sit there and watch the musicians do nothing.
“I just learned of his untimely death.” Untimely? What does that even mean? When is a good time to die? I am reminded of a scene from one of the film versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (I never read the actual book) in which one of Scrooge’s creditors is reminding him that it is the anniversary of his partner Jacob Marley’s death. He says, “What a shame to have died on Christmas Eve.” Ebenezer replies, “That’s as good a day to die as any!” He is right, of course. Are there certain days and times when people shouldn’t die? Death is indiscriminate to time and place. “He died before his time.” No, he didn’t. That was his time, apparently, or else he still would be alive, wouldn‘t he?“
Similar is the term “premature ejaculation.” I come when I’m ready to come. How is that premature? Am I supposed to wait for you? I got my nut, now you get yours! My sex partners and I very seldom manage to synchronize our orgasms. But… “To go together is blessed, to come together, divine!“ The same can be said of birth expectancy. A fetus is not aware of time. Some don’t need the standard nine months for complete development, so if the baby is said to be early, it‘s not “premature.” When it’s ready to come out, it will. And then some need more time. So those babies are not “overdue,“ they are just not ready to be born yet. A doctor tells the expectant mother exactly when the baby will be due, but he doesn’t know for sure. It could be anywhere from 270-279 days from conception, depending on the months involved. Nine months is only an average estimate. It’s just like when they decide when somebody is going to die. “You have six months.“ That’s not their call. Every person is different.
There is a TV commercial that advises women on what to do about an “unexpected pregnancy.” So, “I am ovulating and I let this man ejaculate into me without a condom, but I never expected to get pregnant!” Doesn’t that seem a bit naïve? A pregnancy can certainly be unwanted, but unexpected? That’s like screwing with someone, without any protection, that you know has the clap and not expecting to get infected. “She is a victim of a brutal rape.” As opposed to the victim of a pleasurable rape? The brutality of a sexual assault is what makes it a rape.
“She has the voice of an angel.“ I realize that that is meant as a compliment, but what is it based on? Even if you believe in angels, do you know what they sound like? I suppose we like to think that angelic means heavenly and pleasing to the ear. But then which angel? Are we talking about Whitney Houston or Florence Foster Jenkins? Do angels actually sing, and if they do, do they all have glorious voices? There may be some that don’t sing very well at all. So that can be an individual thing like everything else.
The clichéd simile “quiet as a mouse“ is not valid either. Mice are anything but quiet. The reason I know when they are on my premises is that I hear them scurrying around and gnawing on things even before I see them. “His eyes are bigger than his stomach.” Really? What is he, some kind of freak extraterrestrial? “She’s a party pooper.” Eww! Keep her away from the dip!
A retronym is a term created to distinguish itself from a later development or variation of the same concept. Let me explain. Once upon a time there was only one basic way to prepare coffee. When a person wanted coffee, all they had to ask for was coffee. But then they came out with decaffeinated, espresso, cappuccino, lattés and all these flavored varieties, so now if you want plain old regular black coffee, that’s how you order it. The same goes for gasoline. With unleaded, premium, high-octane and all those other choices, if you want just regular, that’s what you have to ask for. We now have the original “analog” to distinguish it from “digital” and vinyl recordings to distinguish them from compact disks. With the current predominance of cell phones and other mobile gadgets, one’s connected phone at home is now referred to as a “landline” phone. I expect the first retronyms created were the words nudity and naked. Since we all come into the world without clothes then are compelled to go through public life covering our bodies, when we are in a state of undress, we had to have a word to reflect that—naked or nude, to denote the natural state.
A relatively-new retronym is the term “bareback,” which means to fuck without a condom. The fact that males have been screwing condomless forever, and there has never been a time when they didn’t (female impregnation by natural means has always prevailed), the term is stupid and unnecessary. Its most prevalent use, however, is in the porno film industry. When the campaign for safer sex came to the fore as a result of the AIDS crisis during the ‘80s and ‘90s, porno film “actors” started wearing condoms in their films as the PC thing to do. But during the last and present decade we seem to have reverted back to our old habits, and condom-wearing is more the exception than the rule. It’s more daring and exciting to do it au naturel, you see, and many of the new titles reflect this as a selling ploy. There’s Bareback Action and Bareback Mountain, Bareback This and Bareback That, where before no designation was required. Gay men now even hold “bareback parties” (orgies), but I can tell you for a fact that I have never attended a group sex gathering that was not a bareback event. So why even call them that, as if it were something unique and different? I have previously debunked other phrases and expressions used by the media in another post, including “over and out,” AWOL and “first thing in the morning.” See my Cinematic Pros and Cons blog for explanations.
I have some verbal complaints as well. In this age of motor conveyances, people have replaced true distance with how long it takes to get somewhere by ground vehicle. When I was on tour with the Flirtations and I would ask someone how far a certain restaurant or bar or bathhouse is, they would invariably reply with, “Oh, it’s about 20 minutes from here,” which is how long it takes to drive there. But I didn’t ask them the driving time. I am not driving. I’m on foot. What is the approximate distance, please? Ten blocks, two miles, what? I’m not on a time schedule. I may want to stop along the way to eat, sightsee or do some shopping. Just tell me how far away it is.
And I wish that people would answer the question asked them. It happens all the time. Someone will ask a direct question and get a totally impertinent response. “What happened?” “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be all right.” But that’s not answering the question. Why should I be worried when you haven’t told me yet what has happened? “I am worried about my daughter. She was supposed to be home hours ago, and she won’t answer her phone.” “I’m sure she’s fine.” How can you be sure? You don’t know where she is or what she is doing. You just hope that she is fine. Then there is the well-meaning person who gives you more information than you require without answering your original question. Please, just answer the question asked!
When someone is in a life-threatening situation or illness, but the prognosis is positive, the doctor or someone will often tell the patient or victim’s loved ones, “Don’t worry, you’re not going to die.” Not ever? Why tell a lie if you don’t have to? A better way to phrase it would be, “You are going to live for now.” By the same token, when we ask the question, it sounds better to ask, “Is he going to live?” rather than “Is she going to die?” The answer to both questions could possibly be “yes,” but the answer to both could never be “no.” I mean, they are going to die sometime, maybe not just right now.
Then there are those, like physicians and police officers, who are hesitant to tell you something of grave importance. “Uh, Mrs. Brown?” “Yes, what is it?” “It’s your husband.” “What is my husband? What about him?” “Uh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Brown.” (::pause::) What?! I’m thinking, Has he left her, is he hurt, sick, dead, just got a sex change, what? Go on and tell the woman what has happened to her husband! Why the reluctance? The sooner she knows, the sooner she can deal with it. I don’t like to assume anything. Just be up front and direct with me. I can’t stand hemming and hawing and beating around the bush. I am the kind of person who says what I mean and mean what I say. Don’t put words in my mouth or tell me what you think I want to hear either. Be honest about your feelings and thoughts. The truth needs no justification. Of course, there are ways to express yourself without hurting the person’s feelings, unless it is your intention to hurt them. It’s not really what you say at any time, but rather how you say it.
“He hasn’t been seen or heard from for days now. He seems just to have vanished into thin air.” People don’t actually “vanish.” They just leave your immediate sight or go into hiding somewhere. “Where have you been? We have looked everywhere for you!” Well, you didn’t look everywhere, now did you? I mean, they must have been somewhere. People tend to make assumptions when they are searching for something or somebody. When we hide something, we want to put it in a place where we think nobody would ever look. So don’t ever say, “He wouldn’t be there!” or “She wouldn’t hide the money in there!” But why not? Maybe that’s exactly where it is, right where it “couldn’t possibly be.” That‘s probably why you haven‘t found it, because you haven‘t looked in the right place!
“Those papers that were on my desk have disappeared.” Could it be that you just misplaced them, or maybe somebody moved them or stole them? You know, when you misplace something and then eventually find it, it’s always in the last place you look. Have you ever looked for something and couldn’t seem to find it, although you are looking right at the thing but still can’t see it? I don’t understand how that happens. It must be some sort of negative hallucination. Instead of seeing something that is not there, you are not seeing something that is there. And this is even when I’m not on anything!
I realize that people only mean well when they give us mild admonitions, like “be careful” and “watch your step,” but what do these warnings really do for us? Whenever I see a sign over a portal that says “Watch your step” or “Watch your head,” I will more often than not trip or bump my head anyway. So I’m thinking, What good was the sign? I didn’t bump my head on purpose, and telling me not to bump it is not going to prevent me from doing so. Do we normally go through life intentionally being careless, until someone warns us to “be careful”? Oh, thank you so much for telling me that. Otherwise, I would have been doomed to be a bumbling lummox! “Stay out of trouble now.” I don’t purposely go around looking for trouble. It usually finds me, no matter what I do. I am often the victim of circumstance.
“Don’t lose that now. Guard it with your very life.” Similarly, I don’t lose things on purpose either, and telling me not to is not going to protect me from loss or theft. And come on, I’m not getting myself killed over some material item. To the mugger with the gun, ‘So you want this floppy disk? Here, take it.’ Someone actually did give me a floppy disk once and told me to guard it with my life. ’Are you serious?’ I asked him. And due to the fact that floppies are now obsolete, I would have given up my life for nothing!
“Don’t do anything that I wouldn’t do.“ Who came up with that stupid comment? What does it even mean? First of all, I don’t know what you wouldn’t do, and what do your personal limitations have to do with me? Just because you are not interested in making it with that cute guy there with the big dick, I should pass on it, too, if given the opportunity? I don’t think so.
When someone makes a mistake or maybe is late for or misses altogether an important appointment or something and are called on it, they will often say, “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” How can you affirm that when you don’t have any control over destiny? You apparently couldn’t prevent it from happening this time, or so you say, so how do you know that it won’t happen ever again? I just say, ‘I will try to do better in the future.“