“What is the meaning of a word?” Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked Karl Popper. He must have had English in mind because in that wondrous language, not only can words mean the opposite of what you thought they did, but the same word can be used to mean several different things. This is what makes English so delightful, but also so damnably difficult. Although I am not a linguistic philosopher, let me today reveal some of the verbal delights of the English language.
For instance, did you know that depending upon where you locate the word ‘only’ in the sentence, ‘I kissed her in the train yesterday’, the meaning of what is said can change? See for yourself:
ONLY I kissed her in the train yesterday (No one else kissed her except me)
I ONLY kissed her in the train yesterday (I did not do anything else except kiss her)
I kissed ONLY her in the train yesterday (I did not kiss any other person except her)
I kissed her ONLY in the train yesterday (I did not kiss her anywhere else except in the train)
I kissed her in the ONLY train yesterday (There was only one train and I kissed her in that)
I kissed her in the train ONLY yesterday (I kissed her as recently as yesterday in the train)
I kissed her in the train yesterday ONLY (I only kissed her yesterday and not on any other day)
This is just one example of the English language’s verbal acrobatics. Another, that’s no less fascinating, is what’s sometimes called contronyms. These are words that can have two opposite meanings. Here are a few examples:
‘Dust’ can mean ‘to add particles’, such as when you dust a cake with caster sugar, or ‘to remove fine particles’, when you dust your home in the morning. ‘Left’ can mean ‘remaining’, such as in left behind, and ‘departed’, when someone has gone. ‘Off’ can mean ‘activated’, as in he shot off in a hurry, and ‘deactivated’, when you switch off the light. ‘Oversight’ means both ‘watchful care’ and ‘an inadvertent error’. Finally, ‘screen’ can mean ‘to show’, as a film in a cinema hall, and ‘to hide’, when you screen off an area.
However, my favourite example of linguistic gymnastics are oxymorons. This is the term for a phrase that combines two words of opposite meaning but which still make sense together. In fact, we use oxymorons all the time and never doubt what’s said.
Ponder on these examples: Found missing; open secret; act naturally; clearly misunderstood; awfully beautiful; terribly nice; pretty ugly; seriously funny; only choice; original copy; exact estimate; tragic comedy. Some misanthropes would add: ‘Happily married’!
Finally, the piece de resistance, if you’ll forgive a touch of French. In English, even when words are totally wrongly spelt, you can still make sense of their meaning. Read the following paragraph and see:
“I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in what oerdr the ltteres in a word are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is that the frsit and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it whotuit a pboerlm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! If you can raed this forwrad it”. Did you pick up the explanation? As long as the first and last letters of a word are correct, it doesn’t matter how you jumble the ones in between. Is that true of other languages or does the human mind have a unique affinity to English? I’ve decamped to London to see if the Brits are celebrating getting rid of us!