Before I started teaching EFL, I never realized how difficult the English language can be. Afterall, how often do we take time to think about the words that leave our mouths before we say them. (Some people should do that more often, if you know what I mean.) Have you ever thought about the word quicksand? As a child I remember watching shows where someone accidentally ends up in quicksand and they slowly sink deeper and deeper. In most cases, someone would wander by and either fall into the muck with them or attempt to save them from a slow, messy death. Now if you think about it, that is what makes quicksand such a quirky word. It can work slowly. So why call it quicksand?
They are many words in English that just don't make sense. For instance, burgers. We have chicken burgers, bison burgers, vegetarian burgers. We have the classic of all burgers—the hamburger. But if they are hamburgers, why aren't they made from ham instead of beef? And what about pineapples? There is no pine nor apples in them.
When I studied at University in the Lake District of England, my British friends would laugh at me because we Americans call an aubergine an eggplant. I must admit, it is rather odd. It makes you think of an egg-growing vine of sorts. Then again, they all eat mincemeat pie which has no meat in it. So, let's call it even.
Sweetbreads is another crazy word. The first time I heard this word I thought, “Mmmmm...sugar glazed bread with raisins or nuts. Oh, yeah, gimme some.” Of course, when I found out that sweetbreads are calf pancreas (or sometimes the term is used in a broader way to cover other animal organs) I declined. Years later I did have one bite out of curiosity, but that didn't help sway me.
English is full of words that just can't be explained. Beyond the examples I listed, we also have homophones, homonyms, idioms, and other tricky parts of written or spoken English that can make learning English as a foreign language a real challenge. Terms like “hit the road” cannot be translated word for word. Well, I guess they could but they wouldn't have the correct meaning, now would they?
One of my students, Susanne, worked as an au pair in California when she was younger. She loved all the fresh produce and the ocean. The family she lived with ate a lot of celery. She said they ate it all the time—as an appetizer, an afternoon snack, in tuna fish and egg salad. She'd never tasted it before. In Germany, celery root is more popular. One day when she was chatting with one of the neighbors, she was asked if she liked her work and the family she was staying with. “Oh, yes.” she replied. Then, the lady inquired, “Do you mind if I ask about salary? Do you get enough?” Susanne thought this was an odd thing to be asked but replied, “Oh, I get plenty. We have celery at almost every meal.” We got a good laugh out of that one. Susanne is always good for a laugh and a good time. She doesn't even mind me sharing that with you. In fact, she could probably tell the story much better than I did.
Quicksand. Sweetbreads. Celery. All quirky words if you think about them a bit. Boxing rings, too. If they are rings then why are they square? I will leave you to ponder that for a while while I think of a post for R.