By Sally Asante
Small wonder that we English users are constantly standing meaning on its head. Let’s look at a number of familiar English words and phrases that turn out to mean the opposite or something very different from what we think they mean:
I could care less. If you could care less, then you must care at least a little bit. What you really mean is I couldn’t care less.
I really miss not seeing you. Whenever people say this to me, I feel like responding, “All right, I’ll leave!” Here speakers throw in a gratuitous negative, not, even though I really miss seeing you is what they want to say.
The movie kept me literally glued to my seat. The chances of our buttocks being literally epoxied to a seat are about as small as the chances of our literally rolling in the aisles while watching a funny movie or literally drowning in tears while watching a sad one. We actually mean The movie kept me figuratively glued to my seat—but who needs figuratively, anyway?
A non-stop flight. Never get on one of these. You’ll never get down.
A near miss. A near miss is, in reality, a collision. A close call is actually a near hit.
My idea fell between the cracks. If something fell between the cracks, didn’t it land smack on the planks or the concrete? Shouldn’t that be my idea fell into the cracks (or between the boards)?
Pick up the phone. When someone rings you up, you pick up the receiver, not the entire telephone.
A hot water heater. Who heats hot water? This is similar to garbage disposal. Actually, the stuff isn’t garbage until after you dispose of it.
A hot cup of coffee. Here again the English language gets us in hot water. Who cares if the cup is hot? Surely we mean a cup of hot coffee.
Doughnut holes. Aren’t those little treats really doughnut balls? The hole is what’s left in the original doughnut. (And if a candy cane is shaped like a cane, why isn’t a doughnut shaped like a nut?)
I want to have my cake and eat it too. Shouldn’t this timeworn cliché be I want to eat my cake and have it too? Isn’t the logical sequence that one hopes to eat the cake and then still possess it?
A one-night stand. So who’s standing? Similarly, to sleep with someone. Who’s sleeping?
Operators are standing by to take your call. Who’s standing? They’re sitting.
I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth. Let the word go out to the four corners of the earth that ever since Columbus we have known that the earth doesn’t have any ends.
It’s neither here nor there. Then where is it?
Extraordinary. If extra-fine means “even finer than fine” and extra-large “even larger than large,” why doesn’t extraordinary mean “even more ordinary than ordinary”?
The first century B.C. These hundred years occurred much longer ago than people imagined. What we call the first century B.C. was, in fact the last century B.C.
Daylight saving time. Not a single second of daylight is saved by this ploy.
After dark. Isn’t after dark actually after light?
Twenty degrees below freezing. Isn’t that still freezing?
The announcement was made by a nameless official. Just about everyone has a name, even officials. Surely what is meant is “The announcement was made by an unnamed official.”
Preplan, preboard, preheat, and prerecord. Aren’t people who do this simply planning, boarding, heating, and recording? Who needs the pretentious prefix? I have even seen shows “prerecorded before a live audience,” certainly preferable to prerecording before a dead audience.
Pull up a chair. We don’t really pull a chair up; we pull it along the ground. And we don’t really throw up; we throw out.
Put on your shoes and socks. This is an exceedingly difficult maneuver. Most of us put on our socks first, then our shoes.
A hit-and-run play. If you know your baseball, you know that the sequence constitutes “a run-and-hit play.”
The bus goes back and forth between the terminal and the airport. Again we find mass confusion about the order of events. You have to go forth before you can go back.
I got caught in one of the biggest traffic bottlenecks of the year. The bigger the bottleneck, the more freely the contents of the bottle flow through it. To be true to the metaphor, we should say, I got caught in one of the smallest traffic bottlenecks of the year.
Underwater and underground. Things that we claim are underwater and underground are obviously surrounded by, not under the water and ground.
I lucked out. To luck out sounds as if you’re out of luck. Don’t you mean I lucked in?
I slept like a baby. For most people, that means “I slept soundly,” but most babies wake up every two hours and cry.
Because we speakers and writers of English seem to have our heads screwed on backwards, we constantly misperceive our bodies, often saying just the opposite of what we mean:
Watch your head. I keep seeing this sign on low doorways, but I haven’t figured out how to follow the instructions. Trying to watch your head is like trying to bite your teeth.
They’re head over heels in love. That’s nice, but all of us do almost everything head over heels. If we are trying to create an image of people doing cartwheels and somersaults, why don’t we say, They’re heels over head in love?
The athlete never left her feet. Of course not! Her feet are attached to her ankles.
He’s got a good head on his shoulders. What? He doesn’t have a neck?
She broke every bone in her body. What about the bones outside her body?
Put your best foot forward. Now let’s see . . . We have a good foot and a better foot—but we don’t have a third —and best—foot. It’s our better foot we want to put forward. This grammar atrocity is akin to May the best team win. Usually there are only two teams in the contest. Similarly, in any list of bestsellers. Only the most popular book is genuinely a bestseller. All the rest are bettersellers.
Keep a stiff upper lip. When we are disappointed or afraid, which lip do we try to control? The lower lip, of course, is the one we are trying to keep from quivering.
I’m speaking tongue in cheek. So how can anyone understand you?
Skinny. If fatty means “full of fat,” shouldn’t skinny mean “full of skin”?
His feet are firmly planted on the ground. Then how can he get his pants off?
They do things behind my back. You want they should do things in front of your back?
They did it ass backwards. What’s wrong with that? We do everything ass backwards.
English is weird.
(Reprinted with permission.)
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