Why, yes, English IS my first language
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, English is one tricky language.
From homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings and / or spellings) and idioms (terms that are not necessarily literal and often have origins in local slang) to complex word order (subjects, objects, adverbs, adjectives, clauses, tenses, whew!) to silent letters and other illogical spelling rules (the old “i before e except after c…”) to articles, prepositions and nuanced pronunciations, oh my!
Still unconvinced? Consider this: Pineapples contain neither pine nor apples. Hamburgers are devoid of ham. Do you really get on a plane or do you get in a plane? No one says, “I got on my car the other day…” And the term “Hold your horses!” has nothing to do with horses in the physical sense.
It can be an awful lot for a brain to absorb. And I’m a words girl!
But I think one of the most interesting and vexing things about our language is the way the humans tend to manipulate and bend it to meet their passive-aggressive whims. Do NOT pretend you don’t a) understand what I’m talking about and b) do it all the time. It’s called fibbing, capisce?
Allow me to illustrate some creative falsehoods that are told about 18 bazillion times a day in the U.S. alone. (See what I did there?)
“I’m sorry you feel that way.” — The issuer of this statement is neither sorry nor in any way interested in how you feel. He or she is, in fact, so irritated by the implication that they owe someone an apology that they won’t even entertain the notion of flirting with one. Period.
“I’ll call you right back.” — I might call later, I might not. It depends on many factors, including but not limited to if we’re currently on friendly terms, if we have something unpleasant to discuss, if I don’t fall asleep, etc. Oh, and also, provided that no one and nothing more interesting happens along my path, either in person or via a call, text, instant message or other type of distracting announcement.
Deviations on the theme include: “I promise to call,” “We’ll chat soon” or even “I’ll be right back.” Don’t hold your breath on those little nuggets, my friends — literally.
“I had no choice.” — The bottom line is, we do always have a choice. (Yes, I’m aware of the always / never rule, but in this case, I’m confident in using the always.) Free will and all that, yo. No, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that what the speaker is really saying here is, “I made a choice you’re not going to like.” Or even, “I made the wrong choice but don’t want to admit it, even to myself.”
“I’m on my way.” — The fact that you have time to stop and call or text this communique tells me you are either contacting me from your starting point or you just began your journey (don’t even let me find out you texted me while driving, yo). Either way, I know you’re going to be late.
“No gifts, please.” — This is usually a formal notice delivered in writing by the host of a party being thrown for someone else. Occasionally, it is verbally conveyed by someone whose birthday, anniversary or other life milestone is quickly approaching. In the case of the former, it may be true by the organizer. But particularly in the case of the latter, and I have lived through this one at least a few dozen times, it is a flat-out lie. (Flat-out as opposed to what? A tightly wound lie? Hmm…)
“I’m fine.” — In my experience, people who are fine rarely say so in those exact words. Rather, they utter, “I’m great!” or “Things are terrific!” or “My life is blessed.” But hardly ever have I met a person who has said, “I’m fine” and legitimately meant “I’m fine.”
“It’s fine.” — Ooh, you are teetering on the top of a volcano and it’s about to erupt. Especially if someone takes the time to pause and look directly at you while saying, “It’s fine,” dude, you better abort the mission because it is going south in a hurry.
“Fine.” — Hard, hard gulp, people. One word answers are never happy ones. Again, I’m comfortable with the never in this instance. If you hear this, run. Run far away.
Here’s a thought: why don’t we all just find a polite way to say what we mean? I, for one, appreciate candor and believe there’s always a kind, gentle way to say just about everything.
But hey, if you just can’t swing it, fine.
Kimerer is a Tribune Chronicle columnist who loves words … except when someone rolls them into a baseball and hits her directly between the eyes with them. Did we mention she often uses techniques such as personification? Check out her other cool phrase turns at www.patriciakimerer.com