“I am.” This is the shortest sentence in the English Language. The shortest short story is, “Two men went for a tramp in the woods. The tramp died.” Therein lies my fascination with the English Language. “Therein” is a word in which we can find ten words without rearranging any of its letters: the, there, he, in, rein, her, here, ere, therein, herein. What did you say? Enough already. Not quite. We can pronounce the word “ough” in nine different ways and they are all here in the following sentence. “A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.”
But that is not all. There are seven identical words in a row in the following sentence and while it might drive your spellchecker crazy, it still makes sense: “It is true for all that that that that that that that refers to is not the same that that that that refers to.” If you think that’s that I still have more to come. In looking at words, one can truly say, “It is true, despite everything you say, that this word to which this word refers is not the same word to which this word refers.”
The sentence sounds like some of the circumlocutions of the British television shows Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. The Thesaurus on my computer makes circumlocutions much easier to understand in a roundabout kind of way. It is “indirectness, periphrases, roundaboutness, convolutedness and circuitousness.” But if you’re going around a roundabout you cannot say that it is convoluted but can, like the British, call it a circus.
The great showman, PT Barnum would disagree but he had a way with words himself. When he found too many people coming to his zoo and refusing to leave, depriving him of his opportunity to make more money, he put up a sign which said, “This way to the EGRESS.” Patrons in search of even more exotic species made a beeline for the “Egress” only to find it was another word for exit and they had to pay to get back in.
The British television series, QI, a zany quiz-type panel show hosted by Stephen Fry, found 23 “ejaculations” in Sherlock Holmes with Watson having almost twice as many as Holmes, possibly because he was married. Before you leave this column in disgust and complain to the editor, the term “ejaculate” in those days when Holmes and Watson were in carriages and trains hot in pursuit of game that was afoot, meant “to utter suddenly and passionately, to exclaim.”
This is why, now that the term has a distinctly sexual connotation, this sentence from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre sounds really funny, “The sleepers were all aroused: ejaculations, terrified murmurs sounded in every room; door after door unclosed; one looked out and another looked out; the gallery filled.” If you look at it again though, the original and modern usage are pretty synonymous although in such situations rather than fill the gallery one prefers to remain high, dry and anonymous.
In terms of Holmes, on one occasion he refers to Watson’s “ejaculations of wonder’’ being invaluable; on another, Watson ejaculates “from his very heart’’ in the direction of his fiancée. Hopefully nobody else got in the way.
There are many words which, over the passage of time (over time is different) have changed meanings or added new ones. “Buxom” for example was not the well-endowed blonde or Beyonce-type but referred to a woman who was meek and obedient. If any man thinks that any woman these days is meek or obedient let him try pushing her around and she would most likely boxum and then call the cops.
“Dapper” used to mean “heavy-set” and now it means the opposite—slim, trim and smooth. Dapper with the gift of gab would be a Dapper Rapper, a heart-throb. A heartburn is different and used to mean jealousy or hatred—in a way burning up with deep anger. Now it is the prelude to Andrew’s or Eno’s salts, Tums or if you’re in the pink otherwise, Pepto-Bismol.
With the rise in bullying through social media, one would think of the bully as someone who torments and intimidates others. It was not always so. “Bully” used to mean superb or wonderful. A bully person was a fine person, a real sweetheart. When Theodore Roosevelt referred to the presidency as a “bully pulpit” he thought it would be a great place from which he could preach his gospel of social change in America.
The Internet, texting and social networking have changed a lot of words. Facebook causes you to question what is a friend? Can you have a friend you never met and may never meet in your life?
In the old days you could stumble and fall. Now on the Internet it is possible to stumble upon a means of discovering, recommending and rating Web pages and other information. It is named StumbleUpon.
Words like stream, troll, and spam now have new meanings. The one example that captures the difference is that when I was young and even now we hang clothes online and go online until they dry.
• Tony Deyal was last seen in his wife’s
Matrix. In this case it was her car but its earliest meaning was “womb” and as Morpheus said in the movie,
“We’ve all lived in the Matrix.”