“I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in…” — Kenny Rogers
Back during the Nixon administration when I was graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in English with emphasis in both psychology and history, my father, an imminently practical man, remarked as how impressive that was and said that he was proud of me.
Then he asked me just exactly what I planned to do to earn a living in case my oft-mentioned intent to become the next great Southern writer for some reason failed to pan out. Having no immediate answer to his query, I have since frequently thought that I likely looked as dumb as I sounded in my silence, as Dad just smiled and walked away murmuring something about an “awful lot of money” under his breath.
But, after stumbling a bit as does many a young man, I did indeed find a vocation where my father-financed liberal arts education might be plied, to varying degrees of success, depending upon one’s point of view. And though I have now practiced it for more than 40 years, there is one thing that remains as true today as it was way back when I sat down at my first newsroom desk. I have a real and abiding love of the English language that has prompted some folks over the years to suggest I might have “a way with words.”
My momma was an English teacher and insisted that I read from an early age, so the language always came easily to me and I was surprised to learn that it ranks among the most difficult to learn from non-speakers, those from other cultures. After all, so many English words stem from Latin and Greek, the sources of other romance languages.
Until, that is, I really started to think about it. And truth is, as languages go, English is weird. The Oxford (the one in England) Royal Academy ranks it right up there with Finnish and Mandarin Chinese as the most difficult for non-speakers to learn. Because it is not logical: there is no ham in hamburger nor pine in pineapple. While the meanings of look and see are about the same, those of overlook and oversee, are practically opposites. Oh, and since vegetarians eat vegetables, what might humanitarians logically eat?
(I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but the late George Carlin, rest his soul, would have loved this column.)
And, then there are heteronyms; and the English language is just chock-full of them. For those unfamiliar with that term, which is to say for those whose bodies of knowledge contain more useful things, heteronyms are words that have different pronunciations and meaning from other words, but in what can sometimes cause considerable confusion, are unfortunately spelled exactly the same.
It occurs to me that the best way to demonstrate that heteronyms alone might represent some troublesome language learning hurdles, would be to use them in sentences or phrases. So consider the following:
• How could I possibly intimate the seriousness of the scandal to my most intimate friend?
• As a lab assistant, it was my job to subject the subject to a series of tests.
• When he saw the tear in his painting, the artist shed a tear.
• The farmland was cultivated to produce produce.
• The dump was so full that its workers had to refuse any additional refuse.
• His superior officers agreed that the lazy young lieutenant could lead if he could ever get the lead out.
• The family was devastated to learn that the insurance of their invalid father was invalid.
•There was a row among the oarsmen as to whose turn it was to row.
• To help with the annual planting, a farmer taught his sow to sow.
• The injured man’s bleeding was stemmed once a bandage was wound around his wound.
• Since he simply hated procrastination and believed that there is no time like the present, the man thought it was time to present his friend with a present.
• While I was initially skeptical as it was explained to me, I did not object to the object once shown it.
• As the zombies approached, the horror movie victims were terrified to learn they were too close to the door to close it.
• Veteran hunters know that a buck does act strangely when does are nearby.
• No one thought it strange when Country Joe’s band featured a bass painted on their bass drum.
• In what the town newspaper called a family tragedy, a man-and-wife sewer and seamstress lost their lives when they fell in the sewer.