So many words – and possibilities

English is a funny language. "Invaluable" means valuable and "inflammable" means flammable, but "invisible" is the opposite of "visible." When we send a package by car, it is called a "shipment," but if we send it by ship, it is called "cargo." We drive on a parkway, but park in a driveway. Apartments are the buildings closest together, and rush-hour traffic actually is slow.

English sometimes allows a reverse of meaning by a simple change of tense: "He has left" means he is not here, but "he is left" means he is still present.

Also, capitalization can sometimes change the pronunciation, such as the word "polish."

We heard the spelling rule in elementary school: " 'i' before 'e,' except after 'c,' or when sounded as 'a,' as in 'neighbor' and 'weigh' " – except, of course, for the words "weird,' "height," "foreign," "leisure," "neither," "seize," "forfeit," and "either" (and not counting such names as "Keith").

Kind of nuts, huh?

I once told some friends, whose first language was not English, the adage "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana." They did indeed eventually laugh with me about it – a few days later, as it took some significant time to work out.

Information theory (the branch of mathematics used for such things as data compression in computer communications) indicates that English is about 75 percent or more redundant.

This means – in information-theory terms – that when writing in English, one can only be about 25 percent original, while the rest of what is being written is pretty much dictated by the constraints of spelling, words available, grammar, and so forth.

The average English word is about 4.5 letters, so I used this to calculate how many possible words one could make with our 26 letters. I found that we generally use less than about 10 percent of the possibilities.

So there is plenty of room for more words. But we insist on recycling words, even if the spelling is not always the same (i.e., "bite" and "byte," or "cool" meaning chilly but also meaning a calm, aware, interesting person ... hard to define but, you know, cool).

With time, the meaning of some words has been reversed – words such as "terrific," which used to mean something awful; and "awful," which used to mean "full of awe," and still does.

Phrases can also reverse in meaning. "Quantum leap" – which is now often considered something like a great stride – was, in its original physics meaning, the smallest possible step (in energy) one could make.

So, when the boss comes by to see if you've made any progress in your work, you have the safety of ambiguity and can honestly say, "We've made a quantum leap in our work today." After all, that could mean you have done as near to nothing as physics allows.

An essay on English weirdness or funniness could go on for a whole book – which a number of authors have done – but I'll just quickly make the argument that English is the global language.

Yes, admittedly it has been historically spread by the British Empire over the past couple of hundred years. But it remains so because it is so flexible. It is constantly growing.

A case in point is the story of a linguistics professor who was lecturing: "Two negatives in the Russian language still make a negative (that is, provide more emphasis), but contrariwise, two negatives in English actually make a positive. However, in no language do two positives make a negative." It is said that a student in the back of the room then replied, "Yeah, right!"

As another example, we can look at what has been called "Valley Talk" ... for sure. If one uses the term "like," it means that the person was expressing an attitude. However, if one uses the term "goes," it means a direct quote.

For instance, when the speaker is telling about someone and we hear, "She goes, 'I'm sure!' " this means that this is a direct quote; she actually said, "I'm sure!"

However, if we hear, "She's like, 'I'm sure!' " this means that her attitude was skeptical. She did not say "I'm sure!" but her attitude was questioning.

This is interesting from another standpoint since the phrase, "I'm sure" literally means confidence rather than skepticism. The meaning is thus largely in the intonation.

I have often wondered how people who speak Chinese, where intonation changes the actual meaning of a word, can express sarcasm. In English, intonation is certainly also used (although this is not generally advertised) to broaden or even reverse the meaning of a word.

I think English is the most widespread language in history – and perhaps the funniest. We still recite at a play, but we play at a recital. Our feet can smell, and our nose can run. On television shows we can have a "guest host." And when a lamp is out, it is not shining, but if the stars are out, they are .

In English, the possibilities for expression are endless.

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