Words without Pictures


A lot of lists get published on blogs and twitter feeds. The 10-item list seems to be especially popular: the 10 things you need to know before the market opens each day, the 10 stupid mistakes made when pitching to venture capitalists, the 10 questions that a hip company asks job candidates that will make you feel intellectually inadequate. Nothing wrong with ten (or 10) and often these are witty, fun little exercises, and sometimes damn useful. Can you tell I’ve looked at a few myself? But, what is with the stupid pictures?  Almost inevitably these little gems of insight or curiosity are associated with a photograph or graphic of something that the author (or someone) deems relevant. So, for a quantitative puzzler about how many ping pong balls fit into a school bus, we must also be served a photo of — you guessed it — a school bus. Or an observation about competitive advantage displays a picture of Superman flying along in his blue suit. Whhyyy? I’m all for interesting visuals, but the digital landscape is awash in visual litter; jpegs scattered around like discarded candy wrappers, thumbnail video clips looping mindlessly on news sites, reams of twitpics taken in terrible light of banal subject matter. This is really dumb stuff, people.

So, I’m going to post the following list entitled: Ten Things To Consider About English.  No pictures though, you’ll have to visualize your own, or better yet, just exercise the pure joy of your linguistic facilities. 🙂

  • You can have a spoonful, a bowlful, a roomful, a houseful, an eyeful, an armful and a lungful; why not also a spatulaful,  a noseful, a shoeful, a planeful, and a heartful?     (I’m so glad we’re not doing a picture here!)
  • ‘mail’ is a mass noun (no distinction between singular/plural), but ’email’ has become a count noun – despite the ire of some, the term ’emails’ is now ubiquitous.
  • ‘Shall’ occurs far more often nowadays in questions only, not in statements — at least in informal speech.
  • ‘Pitted cherries’ are cherries with the pits removed, ‘boned chicken’ is chicken with the bones removed, but ‘seeded buns’ are buns that have seeds added.  (You didn’t really need a picture to think about these, did you?)
  • ‘Inflammable’ and ‘flammable’  have the same meaning  ‘easily set on fire’, but ‘impervious’ and ‘pervious’  have opposite meanings — the former doesn’t allow liquid to pass through, but the latter does.
  • The solution to the apparent inconsistency above: two different prefixes. ‘Inflammable’ comes from French ‘enflame’ where the en- prefix indicates a change of state. ‘Impervious’ uses a different prefix from Latin  in- meaning ‘not’.  ‘Ennoble’ is another instance of en- (change of state), so its meaning is related closely to ‘noble’, whereas the ‘not noble’ meaning uses the in- prefix (not) + the earlier Latin variant ‘gnobilis’, which results in ‘ignoble’.
  • ‘way’ is supplanting ‘very’ — it’s way cool, that would be way expensive.
  • ‘vibe’ is probably a toxic word at this point. Does anyone say ‘The place had good vibes’ nowadays?
  • The plain occurrence of the reflexive/emphatic pronoun ‘myself’ is on the rise: ‘John and myself were the only ones who went’  in contrast to  ‘John and I were the only ones who went.’   The reflexive/emphatic usages traditionally employ two pronouns, ‘I hurt myself accidentally’ (reflexive) and ‘I, myself, would never do such a thing’ (emphatic). My intuitions feel that this new ‘bald’ usage is an attempt to be more polite, distancing the speaker from referring to themselves, it’s the first person reflexive that is used this way, you don’t hear ‘Themselves and I were invited’ or ‘Only I and himself went to the beach’.
  • Finally, and I love this old chestnut (a comedian is the author, who is it?) We park in the driveway and drive on the parkway.
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