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English Can Be a Strange Language

English can be strange - Can you be combobulated? What about gruntled?

English is a strange.

Recently I was reading a post by Claudette of Writer of Words, and Angie of King Ben’s Grandma had left a comment about how one might use the word combobulated, which presumably exists because you can say someone is discombobulated.

I wondered something similar not long ago about disgruntled/gruntled, and apparently, gruntled is actually a word. Combobulated, on the other hand, is not. However, if you’re going through TSA screening at the airport in Milwaukee, there’s a designated recombobulation area. That’s not an actual word either, but at least people have been making it up with somewhat greater frequency than combobulated.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to do a post about some of the oddities of the English language.

Normally, “-less” gets tacked onto the end of a word to make it mean “without”. Except there is no “normal” in English. A couple of exceptions are feckless and shiftless; there are no fecks to be given, and there are shifts, but they have nothing to do with shiftlessness. Oh, and irregardless? Not a proper word. Regard-less does the job on its own; no ir- required.

Insider.com points out that “Widely used pronunciations can be completely wrong. For example, ‘mischievous’ is often pronounced ‘miss-chee-vee-us,’ but the correct way is ‘miss-chiv-us.'” I’m totally guilty of that, and to my ear, miss-chiv-us sounds like the Queen’s English that no one actually speaks. Perseverance is another word that we (or at least I) want to add a letter to, as in “per-ser-vere-unce.” I want that non-existent r to be there, but I remember that it’s not because in psychiatry, we talk about people perseverating, with no extra r trying to crash the party.

If you’re Canadian (or Australian, apparently), you probably pronounce asphalt wrong. Do you want to put an extra h in there? That’s Canadian mispronunciation. It’s ass-fault, not ash-fault. I still think ash-fault sounds better, though, even though it doesn’t make sense with the spelling.

Do you worry you’re self-absorbed? Turns out we all are, and “I” is the most commonly used word in English, according to Redbook.

This also comes from Redbook: “This is one of those weird english rules that we never break, even though we’ve probably never been explicitly taught it. When describing something, there’s a very specific order in which your adjectives go. Opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin material, purpose. It’s why ‘look at that square, adorable, little, purple, butterfly!’ will never sound as good as ‘look at that adorable, little, square, purple butterfly!'” I had no idea. I’m also not sure why a butterfly would be square.

The word “up” is the most versatile two-letter word going, e.g. get up, speak up, screw up, line up, dress up, open up, close up, etc. (University of Arizona). Then there’s up for and down for, which perhaps should be opposites, but they’re not. You may also have noticed there’s no ham in hamburger, no apple or pine in pineapple, no egg in eggplant, and no sweets or bread in sweetbreads (while sweetmeats have no meat).

A few from Bored Panda:

  • “Queue” takes five letters but you only say one of them.
  • The word “only” can be plunked anywhere in “she told him that she loved him” and changes the meaning of the sentence each time.
  • Similarly, “I never said she stole my money” has seven different meanings depending on which of the seven words you emphasize when speaking.
  • Sometimes “that that” is actually correct English, as dumb as it sounds.
  • We drop the “l” sound in salmon, but pronounce it in salmonella.

From plainlanguage.gov (yup, that’s a US government site), we have this example of our messed up pronunciation: “The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.”

Do you have any strange and wonderful examples you’d like to add?

66 thoughts on “English Can Be a Strange Language”

    1. I have not heard that one before, thankfully, otherwise I would have looked at them with confusion, before biting my lip, so I don’t laugh.

  1. Words – My favorite topic! But I shall keep my big fat mouth shut because I have been accused of being a grammar nazi. I will only offer the old rhyming example of language oddities that starts “If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth?”

  2. The first time I heard the word irregardless was by Kim Kardashian. I remembered thinking what the hell? It’s regardless…then she wanted to dis-invite someone. The word is to be uninvited, no?

    Anyway this is how language gets debated, or accepted and used regularly when plastered across social media… 🙂

    I love what the word discombobulated means in terms of the mental image it evokes in my head. lol

    In fact I’m feeling discombobulated right now! Today! My whole morning has been one big fat discombobulated mess!

    😉

  3. Lol asphalt…hilarious how you parsed that first breakdown of word “asphalt”(a__s-phalt)🤣 Great post. As a former English major and linguist, I enjoy posts like this. Thank you for this delightful share.

  4. I’m beginning to realise that the English language is lacking words to describe and explain what I am experiencing with my mental illness. The words available just don’t do it justice

  5. Off the top of my head I can think of a few examples below.

    Where, wear, were and we’re
    There, their and they’re
    Buy, by and bye
    Whether and weather
    To, two and too
    I, eye and aye

    Also the structure of the sentences that are used are different. As English is my native language I accepted the order of words. I have been learning Portuguese for a decade nearly now and Spanish too recently. The structure of their sentences is back to front in comparison with English and I’ve never been able to pronounce the words properly and will always have a noticeable accent

    1. I’ve studied a little bit of Spanish, and when I was travelling in Brazil I, found it hard to decipher much spoken Portuguese, but I could do better with written Portuguese, as that seemed to closer to Spanish.

      1. Brazilian Portuguese is spoken so fast. I can understand one person but then I can’t understand a word of the next person. It’s just a matter of practice and making mistakes so you learn. If you say something wrong you won’t offend anyone. I watch Brazilian and Spanish programs on Netflix for practice as much as I can. Unless I am on holiday it’s near impossible to practice

  6. From my childhood, I remember my dad saying for a laugh:

    ‘Wa-ter because there is no r, in water. ‘

    Another, ‘laddies’ for ‘ladies’ toilet.

      1. Yes. Lol
        He pronounced ladies as laddies, but I can’t remember full explanation for that one. It might have been something like no y in ladies.

          1. It was one of his rare father and daughter moments with him, where I could feel I could laugh along and joke with him.
            That talk of a couple of examples given earlier was what he gave me, when explaining how the english language and grammar can be complicated.

  7. I could quote you a thesaurus full of these probably, but I won’t take up the space. What a GREAT post! I’ve groused often about the weirdities (yes that’s a word, I just made it up) of English as spoken in America. I presume that there are strange variations in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to name a few primarily English speaking countries. The only ones who could claim to have it ‘right’ are the English in England, where the language came from to start off (and probably that’s wrong too, there were probably variations BEFORE England was a country..who knows?)

    Some of our strange ‘words’ in Utah include:

    “Crick” (creek in more educated parts of the world)
    “Warsh” (wash and ditto to the source named in crick)
    “Root” (route)
    Karn (corn)
    Mow’un = Mountain
    Lie’berry = Library
    Fark = Fork
    Hurrikuhn = Hurricane
    Pelluh = pillow

    Yeah. There’s a whole lot of those…

    Plus the most glaring faux pas of all:

    Yew-Tah = Utah.

  8. What a fun post!
    I’m sometimes really surprised when I hear about some English natives having a hard time getting used to the actual pronunciation of some words in their own language that I just happened to be lucky to learn the right way the first time. Like with mischievous, it was somehow natural to me to say “miss-chiv-us” and I’m always so surprised when someone says “miss-chee-vee-us” ’cause it doesn’t make sense with the spelling! 😀 Not so long ago I was watching some YouTube video for English learners and the teacher in it said a few times and very emphatically that it’s pronounced “miss-chee-vee-us” and I was like “Wtf?! :O It’s not mischievious!”. But when you get used to “miss-chee-vee-us”, “miss-chiv-us” must sound very posh indeed. 😀
    But although I did get mischievous right the first time, for a long time I didn’t know how to pronounce the word queue. I just couldn’t fibgure it out so I said it cue-wee! I remember I was shocked when I finally learned the truth. Or niche. People say nitch, and that drives me nuts ’cause it sounds so awful, whereas niche sounds a lot better, almost like Mish (I’m way too easily peeved with language and these days it even goes beyond my native language which is a bit odd since I don’t know other languages well enough myself either), but I used to say it even more peculiarly – nee-SHAY. It’s because that’s how cliche is pronounced in Swedish, so I thought niche was a similar thing and only learned a lot later that neither niche nor cliche has a weird accent on the second syllable in English. I’m sure there must have been a lot more words like these but can’t think of anything else, and I’m also pretty sure that I still mispronounce some things, even if it’s a lot fewer words now and probably not quite as funny, because I’ve had loads of exposure to spoken English in the last five years or so.
    I don’t see it a lot, but I guess my worst pet peeve with English is “could care less”. Where’s the logic?!
    Ash-fault is interesting!
    I often used to think that Anglophones must have seriously overgrown egos, not because of the frequent use of the word I, but because it’s capitalised. 😀

    1. The I capitalization is interesting. Maybe because small-i on its own seems strange? I can’t think of any other languages that have a single-letter first-person pronoun.

      I guess I’m not surprised when people mispronounce words because English spelling and pronunciation don’t match up often enough for spelling to be a reliable indicator.

      Niche as nitch is weird. I think that’s an American thing, but I’m not sure if it’s limited to certain regions.

      I’m never sure which French-derived words do or don’t retain the acute accent that makes an e pronounced as “ay”. I think cliché does have an accent, but people don’t typically write it that way. Same with divorcée, rosé wine, of née, which means born in French and is used when saying what a married woman’s maiden name was.

      1. I believe Irish Gaelic also uses i as the first letter pronoun, though I don’t remember now if it’s capitalised or not, and also as far as I know the sentence structure in first person in this language doesn’t use this i word as often as English. And in Welsh I is also i (pronounced ee) and it’s definitely not capitalised.
        I believe cliche is indeed pronounced with the ay, but, at least as far as I’ve heard, it’s not the stressed syllable unlike I used to pronounce it, so CLEE-shay rather than clee-SHAY. I could be wrong though.

            1. My grade 8-10 English teacher liked to read the dictionary as recreation, and he did a good job of instilling a love for words.

  9. Miss-chiv-us – yep, this is how we say it over here 🙂 I love this post and comments.

    I used to teach ESL (English as a second language). Some words, English grammar, spellings or pronunciation were bad enough, but when Regional accents come into play, it’s a whole new ball game 😉

  10. Irregardless is regardless and “irrespective of” being combined by error.

    Both words have similar meaning.

    Price and worth have similar meanings, but priceless and worthless have opposite meanings..

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