Where’s the logic?

New month, new methods. In order to maintain the quality (such as it is) of my posts and meet my other obligations, I’ve decided to shift to a biweekly format.

Biweekly… now there’s a confusing word. Sometimes it means twice a week and sometimes (as in the previous paragraph) it means once every two weeks. Context doesn’t always resolve the ambiguity, though I think I’m getting the hang of it after several decades of fielding unsolicited print and email promotions: if it’s something you want less of (like “biweekly updates” from your insurance broker), it means twice a week; if it’s something you want more of (like having your name “entered in a biweekly lottery”), it means once every two weeks.

Fact is, the English language abounds with words and phrases that make no sense. I’m certainly not the first person to notice that “head over heels” does little to portray the state of unbridled infatuation, given that most of us spend most of our time with our heads over our heels (except, ironically enough, when our infatuation has reached its logical conclusion).

The word “sanction” also gets top marks in the illogic department: in some cases it means to endorse and in others to oppose. Why, for instance, does “He put sanctions on the medicinal use of marijuana” mean the opposite of “He sanctioned the medicinal use of marijuana?” It’s all very confusing.

There’s actually a grammatical term for a word that has two contrasting meanings: contranym. One of the best examples is the verb “cleave,” which can mean to join (as in “cleave unto”) or to split. So if you encounter two short sentences cleaved together, feel free to cleave them with a semicolon.

In my final bid to expose and expunge illogical English, I’m offering a prize to anyone who can explain why parkway means a place where you drive and driveway a place where you park.

 * * * * *

Random update: A few posts ago I talked about the verbification of words with a long and venerable tradition as nouns. While perusing the Olympics section in the newspaper the other day I ran across the word “eventing.” I suppose one could do worse than eventing, medalling, and fortuning from all the endorsements.

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7 Responses to Where’s the logic?

  1. C’mon, man, get your priorities straight. You’re so hung up on usage. If we stipulated that every noun is automatically a verb, JUST THINK OF ALL THE EXTRA SCRABBLE POINTS WE COULD SCORE! (Don’t have a cow, people; Gabrielle knows I’m joking.)

    “Head over heels” brought to mind an email I received back in aught-one. Regarding the saying, “They were talking about him behind his back,” the writer argued…

    > Well, wouldn’t that be his front? If you look at the front of my back, you are looking at my back. If you go behind my back, you will find my front. The saying should be, “They were talking about him to his back.”

    Which reminds me of the sign posted on the right door, say, of a double door, that says “<— Please use other door." The arrow indicates that the instructions reference the left door, so the "other" door is the right one. But when you go to open that one, you may be in for a rude awakening! Dollars to doughnuts, _that's_ the locked one, and you've just sprained your wrist!

    Or, maybe the arrow was just trying to help us figure out which door the "other door" was, and me and the e-mailer above just think too darn much, and too recklessly. (Whoops, guy, didn't mean to talk to your back like that!)



  2. Val. says:

    My understanding of sanction is that the noun has two meanings: approval (e.g., an official sanction) or order (e.g., impose a sanction). From the latter usage, sanction would commonly refer to a ‘negative’ order. The transitive verb means to allow or permit (e.g., sanction a boycott).

  3. Val. says:

    As for “head over heels”, I’ve always thought it was incomplete. I believe it would be more accurate, yet more cumbersome, but more descriptive, to use the phrase “heels over head over heels” … or should that be “head over heels over head”? Perhaps it depends on where the subject ends up – or if they end upside down?

  4. Laura says:

    Eventing is an actual Olympic competition — it’s an equestrian triathlon comprising dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. It’s been around for at least 100 years.

    • Oops. Guess I should have done some research instead of assuming I’d encountered another verbified noun. Thanks for setting the record straight.

      • Laura says:

        I knew that only because I encountered “eventing” when reading about the Olympics and was quite sure the writer made up the word. So I looked it up. Prior to two weeks ago, I’d never heard of it.

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