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Category: Language

Whenever I buy a new product, I feel proud of the English language. The instruction booklet usually contains multiple translations in different languages, and the English version is almost always the shortest. My native language takes the least time and space to communicate, and I count that as a good thing.

It is in that spirit of pride, then, that I write this. At least, that is how I hope others will take it — and not as the obsessive ravings of a control freak. Either way, I have a couple of suggestions about superfluous words that might be helpful to others (or in the alternative, annoy them).

Can we stop using the phrase “tuna fish”? Why not just tuna? There are no tuna land animals that might gum up our understanding, and no tuna birds to blur clarity. “Tuna” is sufficient; “tuna fish” can go fish.

I’d also like to stop hearing the phrases “focus in” (as in focus in on brevity) and “reduce down” (as in reduce down to a bare minimum of words). The “in” and the “down” are redundant (but not re-redundant).

And then, there is “unique.” I'm sure you already know this, but I just can't take the risk. Unique is a word that shuns modifiers because they are rarely necessary. If something is unique, it is one-of-a-kind. It can’t be extremely one-of-a-kind or really, really one-of-a-kind or incredibly one-of-a-kind. It’s unique, period. I suppose it could be truly unique (as distinguished from falsely unique) or even broadly unique (unique in a number of categories), but even those modifiers seem suspect. Unique is unique and nothing more.

There are more examples of superfluity out there, but I’m feeling better now. The fever has passed, at least for the moment. I’m simply trying to make a difference, to make the world a better place — one correction at a time. If, however, you have concluded that I am just another word nazi, I can only say that that is an ugly and hurtful term. You swinehund.
The "Thes"
Talk to an Angelino, and before long you’ll hear a reference to freeways. They are central to life, and especially travel, in Southern California. As it is with most metropolitan areas, the art of choosing the right route to your destination has become highly refined there. In Los Angeles, this savvy mostly involves choosing among a snarl of high-speed expressways.

What is also different in such discussions in L.A. is that freeways are given a special linguistic status. Interstate 5, for instance, is simply called “5” by the rest of California. South of the San Gabriel Mountains, however, you will hear it called the 5. You will also hear allusions to the 10, the 110, the 134, the 405, and even the 1. Not just the number of the highway is used, then, but the article “the” is also attached to it.

This practice has long troubled me. Perhaps the roots of my agitation can be traced to my slight revulsion at all things L.A. (go Giants), but I think the issue is bigger than that. In one sense, I have come to understand the impulse to tack on that article. It grants to freeways a standing as edifices separate and distinct from their surroundings. It is a prestige they clearly deserve. They connect to city streets as part of a larger transportation system, but they are clearly their own things — like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Still, I am troubled. As I have said, the issue here is bigger than regional naming conventions and petty conflicts between cultures. This is about the language we speak and the triumph of reason over the forces of chaos.

So it is that I must reject the Angelino fashion of adding the to the titles of numbered freeways. Not because it’s an L.A. thing, but because of all the “thes”. There are too many of them. Not just on our freeways, but in our language. It is time we rid ourselves of them.

Thes serve no real purpose in our language. Oh, they may provide a little clarity now and then, but does Golden Gate Bridge really need one? Or Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Or World Champion San Francisco Giants? Their identity as nouns is secure with or without this archaic appendage. Dump them, I say.

The operation will not be painless, I know. There will need to be some exceptions, some nouns that will be out of focus without their linguistic crutches. But such variances should only be granted when they are genuinely needed.

I will continue, certainly, to refer to Los Angeles’ baseball team as Da Bums, if only for the sake of clarity.
Jesus H. Christ
There has been a storm of controversy over my recent blog, “The Nine Billion Names of God.” And by that, I mean a couple of people wrote in. Their issue, of course, was the “H”. What exactly does it stand for?

The fine folks down at the Internet have plenty to say on this question. For your convenience, I have discarded most of the suggested answers and now report that the likeliest answer has something to do with a case of mistaken identity of Greek letters in the minds of people who use only Roman letters. I won’t go into a deeper explanation of the confusion because it is way too boring, but the root of the problem is that the Greek eta (which looks like an “h”) began as a voiceless glottal fricative but later had an identity crisis and became a long “e” sound (as in Jeezus).

As I said, boring. I would have preferred Horatio as the actual meaning because I like saying Jesus Horatio Christ; it’s got a nice rhythm to it. Hell might have given the name a better-founded status as an oath of frustration. Highpockets, moreover, would have made historical sense as a nickname for the famously lanky savior.

Truth is, the origins of the “H” are uncertain. The earliest citation to it has been noted in Mark Twain’s autobiography in a tale from his youth from the year 1850. The reason the epithet has remained in use for so long, however, is quite clear. It’s a poetic device. That H supplies an opportunity for the cusser to take the expression of his frustration up a notch. Jesus H. Christ packs a bigger punch than plain old Jesus Christ. Furthermore, no letter other than “H” would serve so well. Jesus P., Jesus M., Jesus R.? They simply don’t have the oomph that only a full-throated glottal fricative can provide.

In fact, such a perfect curse might well persist even longer than a couple of hundred years. It has been suggested that the very first usage may have occurred more than two millennia ago. It is easy to imagine an exasperated mother, somewhere in Asia Minor, seeing that the door had been left open by her teenage son and exclaiming,

“Jesus H. Christ! Were you born in a barn?!”
Sometimes I fantasize about a world in which words have one meaning and one meaning only. It’s a silly dream, I know. Perhaps there was a time when our ancestors led lives so simple that every object, every act, every situation had one word all to itself to signify it. Theirs would have been a clear, straightforward language that did not require us to sort out definition from context or to guess at what was being communicated.

There would have been no words like ball, for instance. It’s such a simple word, right? It’s round, and it rolls. Probably bounces, too. On second thought, though, maybe it’s a big dress-up party. Or a good ol’ time, or a bullet, or not a strike, or a sex act, or a testicle, or guts, or any conglomeration of stuff of uncertain shape and consistency.

There are many words like ball in the English language — words that have multiple, seemingly unrelated meanings. There does not seem to be any way to stem this tide of metastasizing definitions. I don’t like it, but I have given into it as a byproduct of our complex society. I accept that a kind of entropy is at work within our language, and that we are moving toward a time when all words will mean all things and therefore nothing at all.

Different meanings are one thing. I draw the line, however, at contranyms — words that can mean the opposite of themselves.

Fortunately for my mental health, most of the examples often cited as contranyms are not true opposites, but rather very different applications of the same root meaning. Take bound, for instance. One usage might have you tied up and immobile. Another could have you moving toward a very certain destination. It gives me comfort to know that you could be both: lashed to your seat on the night flight to Rangoon. Bound is not, in my view, a true contranym.

Cleave is another such word. One meaning is to hold tight, the other is to cut or chop. These are seemingly at odds, but if I let my imagination take me back to the word’s origins in Middle English, I can picture Beowulf bringing down his axe to hack a notch in Grendel’s noggin — and having it stick there. Here again, the two meanings might hypothetically coexist and therefore do not illustrate a contranym. An antagonym, perhaps, but I can live with that.

Most so-called contranyms, in fact, fall into the antagonym category. It is distressing to have to spend time doing thought experiments about such words as dust (remove it vs. apply it), left (gone vs. still here), sanction (approval vs. punishment), and oversight (watching vs. falling asleep on the job), but it is important work that needs to be done.

(This is not the time or place to contrast flammable and inflammable nor to discuss which valuable things are also invaluable. I invite you to conduct those thought experiments on your own.)

There is one word on the list, however, that seems impervious to rationalization: ravel. It means, so far as I can tell, both to tangle and to untangle. Right there in the dictionary, one of the listed meanings of ravel is … unravel. I have not been able to find a way around this paradox, and it is deeply distressing to me. There should be no contranyms at all; for such a word to exist defies the fundamentals of clear communication. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too should language abhor a contranym. It is wrong, pure and simple.

So I must persist. The answer to the conundrum, I know, will present itself to me; all I need is to be patient. At times like this, I often think of the ancient Polynesians. I know that I will never live in a world like theirs where meanings are unitary and immutable. And they, in turn, never faced such riddles as these. But as they navigated the Pacific using the art of wayfinding they called a’aa’u’aa’o’o’i, they had to pit their resolve and cunning against a sea of uncertainty just as I do now. Like theirs, mine will be a lonely journey.

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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee