A frustrating language

I’d like to introduce you to a frustrating language by showing you some of its phrases.

This morning, as I lay in bed, I decided I had to get up.  The up part is clear, but why do I “get” up?  Why not just stand up?  What exactly do I get when I get up?

I knew it was time to take a shower.  But where was I taking the shower?  How can I even take it?  To take the shower anywhere, I would have to remove it, and my plumbing skills are rudimentary.  When I was in college, my roommate was British and laughed at this idea of taking a shower.  He would say, “I’m going to have a shower.”  I suppose having a shower is easier than taking it, in that you don’t need to remove it to have it.  But the dormitory shower wasn’t his, so how could he say he had it?

Look at the last paragraph.  I said I would “have to remove it.”  Again, having something, but what?  How can I have this infinitive?  And how does having it indicate what I really meant, which was that I “would need to remove it.”  Then I said that having a shower is easier than taking it, “in that” you don’t have to remove it.  In that?  In what?!

After my shower I heated up some hot water for tea.  Why I heated it “up” I can’t tell you.  I heated it in a kettle, but even though it was boiling, by and large, it didn’t go up, but stayed right there in the kettle.  I suppose the steam went up, but I didn’t heat up steam, I heated up water.

Why did I just say “by and large”?  By what exactly?  By expresses a relation:  A is by B.  The rock is by the house.  So what two things am I talking about, and which one of these two is large?

What a frustrating language.  I don’t know how anyone ever learns it.


4 thoughts on “A frustrating language

  1. A difficult language it is, but not unlearnable, provided you think with it.

    When I was first learning it, I was puzzled by the phrase “out on a limb” – it was clear to me that the phrase was metaphorical, and my thinking was that when you try to step on a small tree branch way out from the trunk, you risk your life. I thought this was a pretty good explanation, but the native speakers I asked thought I was “out of my mind” – a phrase of similarly thought-provoking proportions:)

    There are online etymology dictionaries that help some. “Have” and “get” are easier to understand: I have (the duty) to get (i.e. obtain) the up(right position). “Up” is also used as intensifier, although some people hate it as such – as you point out (“out”?? as in “holding your finger out of your bodily outline”?), when you heat water for tea, it’s clear that you’ll heat it sufficiently, so there’s no need for “up.” Maybe the “up” functions as sun glasses – you put it on regardless of the sun’s intensity, just for fashionable effect?

  2. Ever since you mentioned “once upon a time” I’ve been obsessed with how illogical our language is. The “heat up” example came the other day when I was at the great Submarine Center in West Portal. A little kid, about 5 years old, in a Batman costume came into the store with his mother. After he asked for a turkey sandwich, his mother asked him if he wanted it “heated up.” The kid looked perplexed, until finally she asked him if he wanted it hot. Then he understood. It was a funny example of how a native speaker learns his language. Like “every other”. Another one that bothers me is “on high.” High is an adjective, how can you be on it? I first heard it, believe it or not, in college. I still don’t quite understand what it means.

    All of this just serves to remind me that I shouldn’t get too frustrated when Socrates confuses me by saying people are speaking upon his slander. As an engineer I expect language to be precise. However, it rarely is, and in a way, isn’t that the beauty of it?

    1. My first reaction to “on high” was that it comes from “being on high ground,” as in the mountains, where the air is rare, so you get dizzy. But I checked the etymonline.com, and this is what I found for “on high”:

      Meaning “euphoric or exhilarated from alcohol” is first attested 1620s, of drugs, first recorded 1932.

      Euphoria – the state of being carried well… Knowledge of Greek helps a lot:) If I am carried well, I am, first, under the impression that I am safe, and second, I am higher than my usual stance. What say you?

      “Other,” on the other hand (!), turns out to be related to the Latin alter. So – every “other of the two.” Ha!

      Btw, one of the stumbling blocks for non-native speakers of English is learning the difference between “high” and “tall.” I was thinking of writing about it at one point, but the online info was confusing. What’s the difference?

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