English, as she is spoke, can be a verbal plague

Turning verbs into nouns is just one of the modern English challenges

If the English language made any sense ‘lackadaisical’ would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.

— Doug Larson

But it doesn’t — make any sense, I mean. Why, for instance, would any decent tongue adorn itself with contronyms? These are words that, depending on context, can mean the exact opposite of what they seem to mean. Thus, we have the word ‘cleave’ which can mean to stick together, or to rend asunder.  We have ‘fast’ which can mean speedy — or utterly immobile. A trip to Gay Paree is not the same as a trip over a loose shoelace. The alarm on your bedside clock goes off by going on. A pyromaniac/author could put out a fire — or put out a new book (Looking Blackward, Harbour Publishing 252 pages).

And if that author was a sado-masochistic opportunist he could flog himself — or his book (Looking Blackward, Harbour Publishing, 252 pages).

Don’t panic — I’m about to wind up this contronym tangent I’m on. But do I mean wind up as in ‘bring to an end’ — or wind up as with a baseball pitch?

Forget contronyms, what about verbing?

Your English teacher might call it “the practice of denominalizing — turning nouns into verbs.”

I call it a viral plague. Much of it is computer-based.

‘Blog’ is a word that isn’t even old enough to vote — it’s derived from ‘web log’ and has led to bloggers, blogging, even blogosphere. Hideous words all, but, like warts on a toad, with us for the duration.

Likewise ‘Google’, formerly a noun (Google it, if you don’t believe me);  also Xerox, fax and ‘text’.

There’s nothing wrong with turning nouns into verbs; it goes on all the time.   One can dress in a dress, dream a dream and dance a dance, but where do you draw the line?

For me, it’s at Facebook.  I won’t join the social phenomenon because I cringe at the thought of ‘friending’ anyone. It just sounds creepy and vaguely pedophilic. And defriending? Puhleeeze.

I am much more amenable to the idea of paraprosdokians.

A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected. The best one I ever heard sprang from the lips of John Wilkes, an English politician who was lambasted by the Earl of Sandwich a couple of centuries ago. The Earl roared at him in the House of Commons:  “I do not know, sir, if you will die on the gallows or of the pox” (i.e., of syphilis).

Quick as a flash Wilkes stood up and purred, “That depends, my Lord, on whether I embrace your Lordship’s principles, or your mistress.”

Paraprosdokians don’t have to be that exquisitely elaborate.

Dorothy Parker was a master (mistress?) of the genre. She once sniffed, “I know a woman who speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.”  Another time: “I require only three things of a man: he must be handsome, ruthless and stupid.”

But the master of paraprosdokians? Sir Winston, of course.

Churchill once explained his facility with English.  It sprang, he said, from his poor scholarship.

Other students were taught Latin and Greek but because he was considered ‘slow’ he was taught only English.

“As I remained (in third year) three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the English sentence — which is a noble thing.”

It certainly was when filtered through the Churchillian vocal cords.

Such as the occasion when a moustachioed young Winston was confronted by an angry female voter.

“Young man,” she sniffed, “I care for neither your politics nor your moustache.”

“Madam,” responded Churchill, “you are unlikely to come into contact with either.”


— Arthur Black lives on Salt Spring Island



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