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Oddities of English

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English is a quirky language. It might not be the quirkiest, but it certainly has its share of oddities. Take spelling for example. One of the strangest things about English is the way things are spelled, which reflects the history of each word rather than how it's pronounced.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw was so upset about the illogical spelling of English words that he left money in his will to pay for the creation of a new alphabet (which came out in the early 1960s, but which never caught on). Shaw complained that you could spell the word 'fish' as 'GHOTI' and still be consistent with the way other English words are spelled, as follows:

  • The 'F' sound, as in 'tough'
  • The 'I' sound, as in 'women'
  • The 'SH' sound, as in 'nation'

Other eccentric spellings include:

  • The only word in the English language with a double 'i', 'skiing'.

  • The only word with three consecutive pairs of double letters in it, 'bookkeeper'.

Another crazy little spelling oddity:

  • There's one English word that changes from plural to singular when you add an 's'. It's 'Princes' which becomes 'Princess'.

And if you don't want to bother with spelling at all, there are some letters and small groups of letters that sound like complete words:

  • B (bee, be)
  • B4 (before)
  • C (see)
  • CD (seedy)
  • FEG (effigy)
  • FX (effects)
  • I (eye)
  • J (jay, the bird)
  • L (hell)
  • LEG (elegy)
  • LO (hello)
  • MT (empty)
  • NME (enemy)
  • NRG (energy)
  • NV (envy)
  • P (pee)
  • Q (queue)
  • SA (essay)
  • SX (Essex)
  • T (tea)
  • TP (teepee)
  • U (you)
  • XS (excess)
  • Y (why)
  • 1 (one)
  • 2 (to, too, two)
  • 4 (for).
  • 8 (ate, hate)

Using some of these succinct groups schoolchildren across the world recite this little poem:

A Q I C.
I 8 2 Q,
B 4 1 P.

Oddities of Pronunciation

The flip side of spelling is pronunciation. There's a common noun you use all the time that has a very strange pronunciation. We all say 'compact disc', pronouncing the word 'compact' as if it was a noun, as in a powder compact. If you were looking for a compact computer, a very small laptop for instance, you'd pronounce it 'compact', with the emphasis on the second syllable.

Speaking of pronunciation, here's a word that's pronounced differently when you make the first letter a capital:

  • 'polish' or 'Polish'

Oddities of Meaning

The meanings of English words are crazy, too.

Many English words have several meanings, none more so than 'set', which means (among other things):

  • To put something into position (set a table)
  • To plant (set bulbs out in the flower bed)
  • To show how determined you are (set your jaw)
  • To decorate (a brooch set with precious stones)
  • To bring something into contact with something else (set a match to a haystack)
  • To make something ready (setting a trap)
  • To adjust (set your watch)

You can set a broken bone, you can set hair after you shampoo it, you can set a poem to music, set sail, or sit in front of your television set while a jelly sets in the fridge. Madness.

'Founder' is not quite as versatile, but it's still impressive. Founder means:

  • To fill with water and sink
  • An originator
  • Someone who casts metal

Even crazier is the word 'dust', a verb with two exactly opposite meanings.

  • You can 'dust' your table top by shaking flour all over it
  • Then dust it again by removing the flour with a damp cloth.
  • 'Sanction' and 'let' also mean their own opposites.

Another word that has recently acquired an opposite meaning is 'executive'.

  • The non-executive director of a company doesn't actually do any work
  • While an executive producer of a movie or a television programme doesn't do any work either

Here's another uncomfortable pairing of opposites. When it comes to trees:

  • First you chop them down
  • Then you chop them up

Putting 'in' in front of a word normally makes it mean the opposite. 'Sane' and 'insane', for instance.

  • But if something is 'flammable' it's easy to burn
  • And if it's 'inflammable' then it's easy to burn, too
  • 'Habit' and 'inhabit' are a similar couple.

While we're on the subject of the meanings of words, why is it that:

  • Goods travelling by road are called a 'shipment'
  • While goods travelling by ship are known as 'cargo'?

'Street' and 'Road' are almost, but not quite, interchangeable:

  • You have road rage. But not street rage.

  • You can be streetwise. But not roadwise.

  • You shop in your local high street. But if you can't find anything suitable, you take the high road to a bigger town.

In the Shaw alphabet, similar consonants are paired together.

  • When you say P and B, for instance, your mouth makes the same shape
  • L and R are a similar pair (which is why Japanese and Chinese speakers famously confuse the two sounds)
  • H and R form another of these pairs; Portuguese speakers confuse them

Strangely enough there are a group of hyphenated expressions in English that only ever start with an H, an L or an R:

  • Harum-scarum
  • Hoity-toity
  • La-di-da
  • Rumpty-tumpty
  • Roister-doister

Weird, eh?

A Punctuation Oddity

Here's a little punctuation party game you can use to amaze your friends on a long train journey or a quiet afternoon at work. Show them the following sentence, and ask them to give it logical punctuation:

Gerald had had had had while arthur had had had had had had had the teacher's approval.

Seems impossible, but once you know the trick it's simple:

Gerald had had 'had had', while Arthur had had 'had'. 'Had had' had had the teacher's approval.'

A Grammatical Oddity

English teachers and pedants in general warn against ending a sentence with a preposition (a word that expresses the relationship between nouns, pronouns and noun phrases: 'Fish served with chips and peas'). In fact, this is a rule borrowed from Latin, and can be safely ignored (except when you're dealing with English teachers and other pendants).

Here's a perfectly good sentence that ends with no fewer than five prepositions:

  • A father goes up to his son's bedroom, a book under his arm, ready to read him to sleep. The boy notices the book and says: 'Daddy, what did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of up for?'

Other Oddities

Finally, here are a few that don't fit in any of the above categories:

  • The word 'typewriter' can be typed using only the keys on the top line of a qwerty keyboard.

  • St John's Wood is the only London tube station that doesn't contain one of the letters of the word 'mackerel'.

  • Ask your friends if they know a five-letter word that has five other words inside it. The answer is 'there' (the, he, her, here, ere).

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