Thursday, April 21, 2011

Quicksand and other Quirky Words

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.


Debra Ann Elliott said...

Great post!
I enjoy your blog very much and have awarded you the The Versatile Blogger Award. You can pick it up here:

Pam Torres said...

Ha! There are some really confusing words out there it is any wonder that people ever learn English. Great post!

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Loving words as I do, your post tickled me. Thanks for the chuckle!

Karen Walker said...

English is a very confusing language. Spelling is weird. Definitions can be difficult. Good luck.

Kendal said...

I think sweetbreads is one of the most misleading words I've ever heard. It sounds so lovely....but isn't. Great post!

Michelle said...

Love this post Linda! I love our quirky words - makes life interesting sometimes!

Bluestocking Mum said...

Oh yes, I like this too Linda. English is a most peculiar language, and then there are the regional variances - the dialect and language, specific to a particular part of the country.

Good to meet you and I look forward to following your posts and writing in future

warm wishes

Angela Scott said...

We do have a lot of weird words. Let's not even go into the way we spell some of them either--it's crazy. How the heck did we learn it? The rules are vast and then there is ALWAYS an exception to the rule.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

English is an illogical language, but then, aren't they all in some fashion. I had never thought of the oddity of quick-sand before, Roland

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Great post! It made me think of the old George Carlin bit: Why do we drive on the parkway and park in the driveway??

I began speaking French when I was 29 yo, and that was the first time the English language came into sharp focus in my mind. It is indeed more quirky than we realize!

Thanks for the follow! Looking forward to reading more. Until then, have a great holiday weekend :))

Josh Hoyt said...

Great post I enjoyed reading it and look forward to following more.

alberta ross said...

Its all about origins and contexts: quick doesn't just mean fast, it can be found in the bible for instance in a phrase such as the quick and the dead - quick was often used in the past in its different meanings and in the case of quicksand it is the meaning of presence of life. or having the quality suggestive of a living thing therefore quick sand is soil (sand) which is mobile, shifting yielding easily to pressure.

sweet breads are not supposed to be suggesting sweetness as we narrowly use the words now but of something plesant to eat - fresh wholesome not acidic (ie not fermented) not stale or rotten. Sweetbreads are only found in the young of the animal, therefore in springtime. After winters of short rations and fermented preserves. The animal was young therefore wholesome. The sauce used to cook them in was often a mixture of honey and vinegar. They have a delicate flavour and must indeed have been sweet to eat.

g-girl said...

teehee. i couldn't help but giggle at many of the things you have pointed out. having worked with a woman who studied the English language, it isn't an easy one at all to comprehend. visiting via the a to z challenge!

walk2write said...

And it's not just the words themselves but all of the many local flavors that must seem confusing: Wicked good! That's not half bad. He's being taken to the cleaners. At least he's not all washed up or wasn't sold down the river...What fun it is to learn English!

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

Linda H. said...

To my new followers, welcome! Thanks for showing interest in my blog.

Debra-- thanks for the award. I'm going to pick it up now.

Pam, thanks. Sometimes I appreciate the simplicity of compound words in German. It's much easier to figure out Kinderarzt (child doctor) or Frauenarzt (woman's doctor) than pediatrician or gynecogist. English words seem more complicated to me know when I think about it.

Lisa, I love words, too.

Karen, I agree. Spelling is difficult in ENglish. Though my daughter is fluent in English (speaks it better than her ENglish teacher), she has a terrible time with spelling.

Kendal, I agree on the sweetbreads thing. TOtally misleading and a let-down.

Thanks, Mik.

Bluestocking Mom--dialect is a whole 'nother ball game, isn't it? When I moved here I had a terrible time understanding the old ladies with their thick Swabian accent and special vocabulary.

Angela, I hate those exceptions to the rule. It makes all my English students go "But the rule says..." and I have to say "exception!" and then they all sigh.

Roland, I guess you are correct. ALL languages have their oddities.

Nicole, George Carlin sure was funny. I loved those skits.

Thanks, Josh.

Wow, Alberta. Thanks for all that information. Now I learned something today. Cool!

g-girl, that makes me happy. I like to make people laugh.

walk2write, I love those phrases. I remember when I went to CMC in the Lake District and the other students in the cottage called everythibg "wicked good". It was funny because all my friends in America used wicked in a negative way. And I loved (and still love) the word knackered. It isn't used in the U.S. but it should be.

Anonymous said...

You know what I find confusing in the US - they call anything with a bread-like substance, a sandwich. Like a burger is a sandwich, in the US. (Coming from Australia originally), I find this unusual.

laurie kolp said...

Linda~ You are so funny... I love this. I don't know how I missed it before.

Anonymous said...

my ex-in-laws are germans from the ukraine. my father-in-law could not come to terms in the usa with our compound words. such as: horseshoes.

why is it "horse shoes" and not "horses hoes" he would ask.

fun post!

sherry o'keefe

Anonymous said...

my ex-in-laws are germans from the ukraine. my father-in-law could not come to terms in the usa with our compound words. such as: horseshoes.

why is it "horse shoes" and not "horses hoes" he would ask.

fun post!

sherry o'keefe

Anonymous said...

my ex-in-laws are germans from the ukraine. my father-in-law could not come to terms in the usa with our compound words. such as: horseshoes. why is it horse shoes and not "horses hoes" he would ask.

fun post!

sherry o'keefe