Thursday, January 8, 2009

Words That Are The Same But Different

Jill from the center of my heart asks:

Why, oh why, does the English language contain apparently contradictory phrases that actually have the EXACT SAME MEANING? It has never made sense to me that the phrase "I could care less" means the same as "I couldn't care less." Or, to be more colorful, "I could give a furry rat's ass" means the same as "I couldn't give a furry..." well, you get the idea. Evidence of the further decline of intelligible English? Customary evolution of colloquial slang speaking habits? Please, Answer Phone, this question keeps me up at night.

It is aggravating, to be sure, when a statement inverted equals the statement. I personally wish that "inflammable" meant that something would not burn. Instead, the definition of inflammable is... flammable. Certainly there have been fatal misunderstandings due to this arrangement. But hey, it is a dangerous world. There is certainly a paucity of certainty.

I am not alone in my tendency to utilize slang that bridges cultures. I get a little bit street with my lingo in a manner that is ironic, honorific, and jealously imitative. When I hew to my cultural and ethnic background, I would probably say, "I am up for going to the water slides with you, Jethro." However, when I want to flavor my conversation with a little extra spice and can not think of a Saturday Night Live character to imitate, I will say that I am "down for a trip to the waterslides." Once translated to the most neutral language possible, the meaning of being up and down are the same.

And I admit that I have been troubled by this. It undermines the very value of language. If down can be up, then what is the point of talking at all?

There is no point in talking. Talking is merely an activity we do while creating facial expressions. Writing is just a mnemonic for those facial expressions. If you are lucky enough to have Recurrent Respiratory Pappilomatosis or some other situation that requires fits of voice rest, you will find that it is quite possible to get around in the world with simply facial expressions and hand signals. In fact, it simplifies human interaction by cutting down on nuance. Nuance is an opportunity for misunderstanding.

That is why I am proposing National Silence Day. On NSD language will be kept to an absolute minimum. Radios will go silent. Televisions will be muted or merely have suggestive instrumental music over great nature documentaries.

NSD would be a great time to deal with important relationships in your life. Have coffee with your estranged uncle. I wager you will not be able to disagree using only hand motions and smiles. Inevitably you will resort to personal contact, touching on the shoulder and the like.

Words are fun playthings and fantastic weapons, but they are indefinite tools. As toys, I think of them as the Fisher Price popper that has been popular for generations. It is not a lawn mower or a vacuum cleaner although its use is similar. The Popper does nothing produces nothing changes nothing. And kids love it. Just like they love language.


  1. Funny, odd, whathaveyou, but I found a distinct sense of loss when my son started to conjure words for communication. Like some sort of "real" communication of a guttural, gestural sort, the kind that happens between eyes, was lost. Now, when we "talk" I try to keep eye contact and to still communicate with my eyes and face. This may play into his somewhat retarded speaking abilities, but I don't care. When he doesn't want to do what I say, he averts his eyes. When I really want him to do what I say, I have to tell him to "look at me" and when he finally does, he acquiesces. Indeed.

  2. AnswerPhone does not disappoint. Lucky for Kelvin Freely, or I would have hand his hed.

    I'm in for NSD. I mean I'm out for it. What?

  3. Right now I'm pumping my pelvis at the wall and sticking my neck out such that it is painful also there are tears streaming down my face.

  4. Does this belong here: When an alarm goes off, does it go on? What is going on when an alarm goes off? I have an idea that when a light bulb goes off, I don't have an idea but should have.