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Slices of Life: Navigating discrepancies in the English language

Jill Pertler

The English language is a formidable beast, even for those of us who learned it as our first language. Language is all about meaning — communication. And sometimes context and inflection can completely change the meaning of a word or phrase.

Add to this the overall goofiness of English. Why is it that bird, heard and word rhyme all the time, but love, stove and move do not? Add to this the dove duality — when you see the word, does it refer to the bird or the past tense of dive?

None of it makes sense and yet I've dedicated my career (and life, practically) to words and the English language.

The intricacies and subtleties can cause communication gaffes — most often between people who are married. But it can happen with anyone.

It's a wonder we ever get our message across.

Let's start at the top, with the word "head." Dictionary.com lists 66 entries just for this one word — some of which are rather racy in nature, but I'll stay away from the R-rated heads. I try to keep this a PG-13 column.

Still, how many ways can going to the head be interpreted? Are we talking about a line, the class or bathroom? Those are three completely different actions, unless you are standing in line to get into the bathroom before math class. Then you are going to the head in more ways than one.

A racket is an implement used to play tennis or it is a loud and rather disturbing noise, which you do not want to make if you are watching tennis (said in a hushed tennis-watching tone).

We often make things more complicated than they need to be. When you are patiently waiting for your turn on a theme park ride why is it called a queue when it could be simply Q? All those extra letters. I've written plays and am a playwright. Why not "playwrite" or "playright?" Every time I use the word I have to look it up. No kidding.

There's a whole list of words that can mean one thing, unless they mean the opposite. They are officially called auto-antonyms, or in layperson terms, car-opposites.

Here's one actual dictionary definition: "Egregious: adj. 1. Outstandingly bad; shocking. 2. Remarkably good."

I'm not making this up. If you tell someone they are egregious what are you saying, exactly? Exactly.

By definition, a bomb is an explosive device. Unless, of course, you are referring to the theater (or theatre). Then a bomb is anything but explosive; it is lackluster. A bad thing.

Adversely, if someone's performance is the bomb, it is inspired and exceedingly good. A bombshell is an overwhelming surprise or disappointment (bad thing), unless it is an extremely attractive woman (good thing).

For all of you who are keeping track of the inconsistencies, "bomb" does not rhyme with "tomb" or "comb." But we already knew that.

When you strike something, you hit it. Unless you are playing baseball, where a strike means you didn't hit anything.

Often voice tone lets us know what meaning we intend.

The word "bad" is obviously bad, as in not good. Unless, of course, it is good. In that case, "bad" is said with attitude to convey the goodness of the badness. "Look at that baaaad convertible!"

Equally opposite is "perfect," which is wonderful, superb and flawless unless it is spoken with a certain under-your-breath intonation that makes it anything but wonderful: "I got an F on my test. Perfect."

The same goes for "great," which is usually great unless it is ungreat (or maybe ingrate — I can never keep it straight). In this case, it is used in a sentence to describe something negative: "Oh great, another flat tire."

"Right" is always right, unless it is "wrong," which would not be right but logically left. I think.

And "left" is just as confusing. If someone left the building, they are gone. If three cookies are left on the plate, they remain on the plate and are far from gone. Yet.

But they will be soon. I think I've confused myself enough for one day and am in need of a snack. There are those three cookies waiting, after all. They'll be great! (As in "positive" regarding taste or as in "negative" for my diet.)

Take your pick.

Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

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