Of course you’re confused – I’m speaking English.

“If you don’t do as you’re told, we’ll punish you. How? By giving you a lot more freedom.”

What kind of a threat is that? Yet It cropped up a few times in the news this week – aimed by the US in an Easterly direction and by the EU towards its own miscreant members. It’s how countries regularly warn others about their behaviour.

Why such a contradictory message? Simple. They’re talking in English, the universal language. And in this case what they were threatening were sanctions.

"Can't make head or tail of it, myself..."

Unfortunately – or entertainingly – in this confusing tongue ‘sanction’ has two exactly opposite meanings: ‘restriction’ and ‘permission’. Put a sanction on someone and you’re stopping them doing something. Give them a sanction and you’re allowing them to do it. No wonder international relations are a minefield.

Dogged by misunderstanding

English is a mongrel of a language, a lingo that must seem like a perverse code to outsiders. For instance, to cover something means to conceal it. That’s the opposite of exposing it. But if a newspaper covers something it’s giving it exposure. So exposure is coverage. Got that?

What happens if you commit a motoring offence? You get an endorsement. It identifies you as a wrongdoer on probation. But what if someone supports you, personally or in business? That’s right – they give you an endorsement, praising your outstanding qualities and capabilities.

If you’re a boss you might oversee the work of your staff. That shows proper care. But if, while overseeing, you commit an oversight, you’ve shown a culpable lack of care.

If you were clinging to a belief against all odds, you’d be cleaving to it. You and that belief would be sticking together. But if you were splitting an apple apart you’d be – that’s right – cleaving it. Possibly with a cleaver.

You can talk …

"I'm not standing for THAT."

The code becomes less penetrable the more you look. You might have parliamentary ambitions, for example. So what do you do if you want a seat? You stand.

Let’s say you got into parliament and found yourself acting as a committee member. You might forward a resolution. But if someone wanted to support you they’d back the resolution while you forward it.

Because English is such a mongrel its derivations and constructions are peculiarly confusing. It’s also democratic. We don’t have a body like the Academie francaise, which strives to formalise the development of French, so in our case usage generally beats academic accuracy over the course of time.

"Yes, yes, I'll get around to it."

Take the word ‘presently’. Today it means ‘in a little while’, but originally it meant ‘right now’ as in ‘at this present moment’. So ‘I’ll do it presently’ once meant ‘I’ll do it now’, whereas these days it means the opposite: ‘I’m not going to do it now’.

‘Terrible’ started life as ‘inspiring terror’, which had more of a ring to it than its modern usage does. This can lead to misunderstanding. The Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a series of pieces known as the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ – but honest, they’re not that bad …

Where’s the logic? It’s usually there, but tangled in the etymological or grammatical undergrowth. Whether it’s in the words themselves or the constructions that contain them, the English language constantly lays traps for the unwary. ‘Nothing acts faster than Anadin,’ said the old slogan, which invited the irresistible reply ‘In that case I’ll take nothing. Thanks for letting me know.’  Even the experts can get caught out.


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