Siddhartha Kumai

If the plural of tooth is teeth Why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? So goes a poem poking fun at the follies of the English language. English is the most widely spoken language in the world, but ironically, it is also one of the most inconsistent and littered with linguistic anomalies that confound us. Have you noticed that for every “rule” you learn in English, there are a bunch of exceptions that always throw you off? We have mouse and mice, louse and lice, but no house and hice. We know what sweet, meat and bread are. But did you know that sweetmeats are candies and sweetbread is a meat dish that isn’t sweet at all? It boggles the mind, but what else can you expect from a language in which your nose runs and your feet smell! These very paradoxes however are what make English so compelling. Let’s face it, if it were plain and uncomplicated, it would take the joy out of learning the language. English is relatively young compared to the two languages it has borrowed heavily from — Latin and Greek. The letters in the English alphabet are the same as in Latin and the word alphabet itself is a combination of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. Most of the words in your vocabulary have either Latin or Greek roots. English has also been influenced by German, Sanskrit and the Romance languages — Spanish, French, Italian and others. A brief etymological (pertaining to words and their origins) study of the English vocabulary reveals many fascinating things behind the history and semantics of words and phrases that we use in our everyday lives. One interesting fact is the existence of “white bias” in the English vocabulary. This is apparent in the negative connotations of almost all the phrases involving the word black. Black magic is evil, black thoughts are wicked, a black market is illegal and the black sheep of a family brings shame to his kin. Then there is blacklist, black eye, Black Friday, black looks and more. In contrast, white is associated with purity and innocence. An angel is garbed in white, white days are happy days and a white dove is a symbol of peace. Why is white always played first in a chess game? Why did white supremacists believe that they were better than dark-skinned people? A number of explanations exist, but this bias can probably be traced eons back to mankind’s inherent fear of the dark and comfort with the brightness of daylight.

In the olden days, people in Europe were apprehensive of left-handed people, who were considered abnormal. This may sound incredulous but some of the words we use today are testaments of those primitive times. The words dexterous and adroit, both meaning skillful, have their roots in the Latin word dexter and the French word droit, which both mean right hand. The French word for left hand is gauche, but it means awkward or socially inept in English, not at all flattering to left-handed people. But even that would sound like a compliment compared to this - the Latin word for the left hand, sinister, means evil in English.

Some words have very interesting histories. If you’ve ever wondered why there is no ham in a hamburger, it was named after the city of Hamburg in Germany, not ham. The word juggernaut, which is used to describe an unstoppable force, was derived from Jagannath, an avatar of Lord Vishnu. The sandwich was named after an 18th century English nobleman. The Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who enjoyed playing card games, started eating meat placed between two pieces of bread at the card table so that he would not have to leave to eat a proper meal. The teddy bear was created by a toy company who named it after then US President Theodore Roosevelt whose nickname was Teddy.

English is a language that is constantly evolving as we make progress. Advances in technology and new events around the world result in new additions to the English vocabulary. Words like Internet and software didn’t exist decades ago. The biological term hybrid is now more commonly associated with a vehicle that runs on a combination of battery cells and fossil fuel.

More recently, the war in Iraq and the intense media coverage preceding it gave way to new terminologies like weapons of mass destruction or WMDs, preemptive self-defense and embed (a journalist who is placed among troops). Modern business strategies in the West have led to the term offshoring — the practice of outsourcing business to other countries. New dieting habits have spawned the word flexitarian, a vegetarian who eats meat occasionally.