ENGLISH IS WEIRD - BUT FUNNY
Richard Lederer was once asked where he would get all these funny stories he answered:
"Ever since I became a writer, I had found that questions the most difficult to answer and had only recently come up with an analogy that I thought would satisfy both my audience and me. Pouncing on the opportunity to unveil my spanking new explanation, I countered with, Where does the spider get its web? The idea, of course, was that the spider is not aware how it spins out its intricate and beautiful patterns with the silky material that is simply a natural part of itself.
Asking a writer to account for the genesis of his or her ideas is as futile as asking a spider the source of its web and method of its construction."
Introduction and bibliography
Richard Lederer was the kind of child who, almost as soon as he could talk, saw a butterfly and cooed, "Oh, goody. A butterfly will flutter by." Even as a high-school student, Richard knew that Elvis Presley, born three years before him, would become immortal because he recognized that "Elvis Lives" is a two-word anagram.
Richard Lederer entered Haverford College as a pre-medical student but soon found that he was reading the chemistry books for their literary value. Mr. Lederer became an English major and then attended Harvard Law School, where he found that he read the law cases for their literary value. So rather than fighting his verbivorous instincts, He switched into a Masters of Arts and Teaching program at Harvard. That led to a position at St. Paul's School, in Concord, NH, where he taught English and media for 27 years. Richard Lederer said that he would have gladly served them for the rest of his days, but having earned a Ph.D. in English and Linguistics from the University of New Hampshire inspired him to write books on language. The enthusiastic and popular response to these books, beginning with 'Anguished English', gave him the opportunity to leave the St. Paul's community to extend his mission to teach in the English language.
More than a million of his books are in print, most with Pocket Books and Dell. Richard Lederer has a column, "Looking at Language," which reaches more than a million readers through newspapers and magazines across the United States. His books have been nominated for the Book-of-the-Month Club as well as appearing in the Literary Guild alternate selections, and, in addition, his work has received positive reviews from the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, National Review, and Reader's Digest. On top of this, he is the Grammar Grappler for Writer's Digest, the Wizard of Words for Time Machine, and Verbivore for Salon magazine. His media work includes broadcasting regularly on a number of major market public and clear-channel commercial radio stations, including NYC, Wisconsin, and Boston Public Radio as well as, WHAM in Rochester and WSCQ in Columbia, SC. He has appeared a number of times on just about every major radio station in the U.S., including Larry King radio, the Osgood Files, G. Gordon Liddy, Tom Snyder, Roy Leonard, Dave Maynard, David Brudnoy, and television shows, such as the Today Show, and CNN Prime Time.
Analyzing the content of Richard Lederer's entire book, would be as pointless as many, if not all, of the expressions in his book. Therefore I tried to analyze not only the underlying humor which sits in all of the listed expressions, but also the structure of communication and the derivation of language itself using the example of 'Anguished English'.
Communication means the transmission of thoughts and emotions to other people using words and/or visual images. It is a means of letting one's 'inner self' be known and understood by the 'outside world'. Richard Lederer shows us in a funny way what can happen to the communication between human beings if either one or both of the communicating parties can not express themselves properly. A phenomenon of communication, and one reason that I am in the United States, is that any concept, idea, or object, no matter how sophisticated or culturally bound, can be translated into any other language. It may require additional words and perhaps visual cues, but everything that can be expressed in one language can ultimately be translated into another. Most probably, this is related to the fact that we as humans, no matter where we are from, experience the same fundamental emotional states; in addition, we are equally capable of forming rational thought. Furthermore, in any language an infinite number of sentence possibilities exist, and yet even a relatively young child can produce and understand sentences it has never heard before. One might assume that language rests on a solid foundation of logic. Unfortunately, there are many cracks in this foundation that have formed side by side with human evolution. Language, one can say, is often as random as the evolutionary process. As Walt Whitman might proclaim, 'they (languages) contradict themselves'. In other words, even though the purpose of language is to help us make sense of things, they themselves often make no sense what so ever. That's because language is blindly invented by men and women who seek useful means of communication during their day to day lives. They don't concern themselves with the practicality of their language in view of future generations. As such, language reflects the creative and fearful asymmetry of the human race, which, of course, consists of many racial sub-categories.
Words that might have made sense at the time of their invention give us headaches today when we try to construct logical rules of language. That's why six, seven, eight, and nine change to sixty, seventy, eighty, and ninety, but two, three, four, and five do not become twoty, threety, fourty, and fivety. That's why first degree murder is more serious than third degree murder but a third degree burn is more serious than a first degree burn. Most of the mistakes printed in Anguished English derive from misunderstanding, double-meaning words, and translation mistakes.
For example when translating from German to English a serious problem arises, the words in German can have a different meaning than the words in English. The English word 'sensitive', for example, in German is written 'sensiebel'. This German word, on the other hand, is similar to the English word 'sensible', which, in the English language does not necessarily mean 'sensitive'. Depending on the context, the culture and the evolution of the language itself, similar or even the exact same words can have totally different meanings. If translating a single word already causes problems, what about whole sentences or even entire texts? To translate from one language into to another, the translator has to be aware of both languages which, in turn,consists of all the words that are used at the present time. In addition, the sequence in which words appear in a sentence can vary from language to language. Since there is usually no logic involved, the translator has to develop a feeling for what does and does not 'sound right'.
Having realized the complexity of language, it is wise to look at the evolution of language in order to gain greater insight into the underlying 'system'. Changes in Language can appear at a high speed and are often hard to trace from our perspective. History teaches us that changes in language are caused not only by war or religion but ultimately for no real reason at all. English as a language evolved through many periods and mutated so much that we need trained translators to comprehend texts written only 500 years ago. Most probably, it is the case that a new period of English has already begun without our conscious realization. Centuries passed before anyone realized the full linguistic significance of the years 1066 and 1476. Specifically, a fourth, "post-Modern" period of English may have originated in 1876 or 1877 with Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone and Thomas Alva Edison's invention of the phonograph. These machines (along with a few others that have followed--radio, talking pictures, television) were able to do for the spoken word what the printing press did for the written word. Before 1880, speakers could be heard only by those within their natural voice range; now, however, a speaker can have a virtually unlimited audience, situated anywhere on the Earth or even in outer space.
Describing humor deals with just about the same problematic as describing beauty. Sense of humor can vary from person to person. What an individual declares to be funny is up to the individual and cannot be 'wrong'. In other words, 'it lies in the eyes (or in this case 'ears') of the beholder'. Many times humor varies from culture to culture and even from age to age. Because different cultures live in different environments, their day to day lives consist of different events. As a result, thoughts, and therefore jokes, will center around different topics. "Humor is the quality in something that makes it funny." Analyzing humor or the basic principle of comedy and its structure is one of the hardest things to do. Why do we consider Richard Lederer as a funny guy? Why is his book 'The Anguished English' known to be amusing? This leads us back to the definition of comedy - humor is everything that can be laughed about.
Anguished English reminds many readers of a good after-dinner speech. The funny point about his writings consists of actually two points. First, the expressions are funny because we laugh at the people, even though we can understand how such ridiculous mistakes can occur. Really funny is the fact that, the unnamed authors of Anguished English have documented these mistakes, hung them up in public places and/or even printed and distributed them at numerous times and locations. We laugh when we imagine seeing the particular signs in, for example, a hotel in Hong Kong, and we find it amazingly hilarious that somebody was stupid enough to actually write these phrases without recognizing their double-meaning. Most probably, ninety-five percent of the people who wrote down the mistakes would see the point if it was not they themselves who had written them. The unnamed authors of 'Anguished English' most probably did not see the "forest because of the multitude of trees;" (Old German saying). The second reason why these expressions are funny is that the words, in the way they are combined, do not make logical sense. The individual words themselves would make perfectly sense in any other context or it just left by themselves. Therefore it is the meaningless and illogical combination of words which cause the expressions to be endlessly dumb and funny.
Self Explaining and humors examples by Richard Lederer
That's why we can turn lights off and on but not out and in. That's why we wear a pair of pants but, except on airy cold days, not a pair of shirts. That's why we can open up the floor, climb the walls, raise the roof, pick up the house, and bring down the house. Still, you have to marvel at the unique lunacy of the English language, in which your house can simultaneously burn up and burn down, in which you fill in a form by filling out a form, in which you add up a column of figures by adding them down, in which your alarm clock goes off by going on, in which you are inoculated for measles by being inoculated against measles, and in which you first chop a tree down -- and then you chop it up.
If button and unbutton and tie and untie are opposites, why are loosen and unloosen and ravel and unravel he same?
If bad is the opposite of good, hard the opposite of soft, and up the opposite of down, why are badly and goodly, hardly and softy, and upright and downright not opposing pairs?
If harmless actions are the opposite of harmful nonactions, why are shameful and shameless behavior the same and pricey objects less expensive than priceless ones.
If appropriate and inappropriate remarks and passable and impassable mountain trails are opposites, why are flammable and inflammable materials, heritable and inheritable property, and passive and impassive people the same and valuable objects less treasured than invaluable ones?
If uplift is the same as lift up, why are upset and set up opposite in meaning? Why are pertinent and impertinent, canny and uncanny, and famous and infamous neither opposites nor the same? How can raise and raze and reckless and wreckless be opposites when each pair contains the same sound?
Why is it that when the sun or the moon or the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible; that when I clip a coupon from a newspaper I separate it, but when I clip a coupon to a newspaper, I fasten it; and that when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I shall end it?