Monday, September 28, 2009

Word Play

My husband, like me, is a linguist; unlike me, he prefers to use his linguistic abilities to study any language other than English.  I like to learn other languages, but when it comes to dissecting and analyzing language, I prefer English because it absolutely fascinates me.  Its history, its vocabulary, its quirky sentences that don't follow any pattern expected in the language, its word play. . .

Originally, this post dedicated to word play was prompted by an episode of I Love Lucy.  In one episode, Ricky promises Lucy that he will buy her a mink stole.  When Lucy tells Ethel about the stole, Ethel comments on how expensive it must be, and Ricky begins to tell her that he will be getting the stole wholesale.  Lucy, knowing what he is going to say, kicks Ricky in the shin to keep him quiet.  Afterwards, Ricky tells Lucy, "Don't kick the shin that stoles you."  How great is it that we can say such a sentence in English?  One of the many reason I love the sitcom is the use of word play to make jokes.  Ethel leaves a room, saying she's going to "put on a new face," and Fred crosses his fingers, saying he hopes it works this time because every time she says that she always comes back with the old one.  Ethel comments that Ricky and Fred are cut from the same mold, and Lucy replies, "Yeah, and they're getting moldier all the time."  The examples go on and on.

However, since this blog is devoted to books and reading, I couldn't let the entire post be about word play examples from a TV show.  I promised myself I wouldn't write this post until I had a good example from a book, and yesterday morning, Bridget Jones's Diary, which is also the current "Book of the Week" (see the left sidebar), gave me such an example (taken from page 50):

I made a complete arse of myself today, though.  I got in the lift to go out for a sandwich and found Daniel in there with Simon from Marketing, talking about footballers being arrested for throwing matches.  "Have you heard about this, Bridget?" said Daniel.

"Oh yes," I lied, groping for an opinion.  "Actually, I think it's all rather petty.  I know it's a thuggish way to behave, but as long as they didn't actually set light to anyone I don't see what all the fuss is about."

Simon looked at me as if I was mad and Daniel stared for a moment and then burst out laughing.

How could anyone not love analyzing a language that allows such extensive play with its words?  Whether it's misunderstanding phrases like "throwing matches" and taking them literally or making a verb out of a noun like "the shin that stoles you," English offers its speakers/writers the ability to be creative and have fun while using it.

Historically, the ability to use words as more than one part of speech in English until Middle English, when the language was losing inflections on its words, making it so a noun could look like a verb or adjective and, thus, could be used as either in creative ways.  Many of our "new" words in English are actually old words used in new ways.  One such example appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on July 28, 2009: "Rain was also expected to cause water to pond in low-lying areas across the Kenai."  When I read that sentence the first time, I had to read it through several times before understanding it because I had never heard "pond" used as a verb before.  The American Dialect Society nominates and then votes for the Words of the Year--most of which are old words/phrases that are being used in new ways.  One of my favorites is the 2006 Word of the Year: plutoed, meaning "to demote or devalue someone or something."  I've not actually used the word in my speech yet, but perhaps I will find something to pluto in the near future. . .

Do you have any favorite instances of English word play?  Or, at the least, any recent instances that you've noticed?

Happy reading, and happy searching for interesting instances of word play!

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