English Language on the Half-Shell; Season to Taste…

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Those of us who study foreign languages often delight and frustrate ourselves with some of the absurdities of other languages, without ever looking objectively at those of our own. I mean: famous are the spelling absurdities of the English language as well we all know, easily seen in the incongruities of such similarly spelled words as, “Bough coughs dough enough; nought ploughs rough slough tough.”

But those spelling quirks are but the tip of the iceberg, ramming the sides of the Titanic until sinking. The absurdities go much deeper and fundamental. “Used to” is a commonly accepted and full-fledged auxiliary verb to denote past tense in uses such as, “I used to go to ballgames,” in fact an ‘imperfect tense’ implying past continuous action, more than just once. But where did such a use come from? What exactly did you use to go to these games—time? It’s ridiculous, BUT… if you say it often enough, then it makes sense, even long after the original context has long since changed.

How come? Now that’s a good phrase, sometimes shortened into the single word, “Why?” But “how come” certainly has a folksy feel, now, doesn’t it? “Kind of” and “sort of” are good ones, two of a kind, that must have started off as a very specific idiomatic expression featuring categorizing nouns that eventually came into general adverbially use. That’s pretty likely, I’d say, considering the general shortage of adverbs, “pretty” itself being one of the more common loaners for this purpose, an adjective drafted into service and converted.

The incongruities go still deeper, though, right into the small selections of auxiliary verbs in common use, and ever more important as verbal conjugations have lost favor. Variations on the verb “to have” are most prominent, of course, in their use for the perfect tenses, and make general sense to indicate completed actions, as do “will” and “go” to indicate future actions, the former a common noun if little used nowadays as a stand-alone verb, the latter used in many languages in its many equivalents for the same purpose.

But what about “might” and “must” as auxiliary verbs? The former is a strange noun to draft into service as auxiliary verb, until you consider the role of ‘poder’ in Spanish, both noun and fully inflected verb in common use, a role “might” might have played before “can” and “may” came into common use. “Must” is a strange verb, though, so no wonder it’s falling into misuse.

Maybe my favorite English-language conundrum, though, is the word “business”, the act of being otherwise occupied, somehow transformed into the roles of trade and commerce, “busy-ness”, likely originating more in the sense of “occupation” or “profession”, strange enough word meanings, themselves, if you stop to think about them, which I do. Do you?

But what I really want to know is: How come Ed Koch got a splotch on his crotch, but the brothers Koch can’t even get a smoke from a bloke? I guess it depends who you know… I can’t figure this language out! (But I’m trying)…

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