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January 30, 2010

English Vagueness

Every language has its trips and traps. English, for a variety of reasons, seems to have more than its share. Consider, for example, some extremely common words, phrases and areas of miscommunication. When you are at a meal, for example and you say that something is "hot" do you mean hot as in spicy or hot as in...


If the food is hot in temperature, one can wait for it to cool or eat a cooler side dish. If it is spicy, there is little do do except prepare oneself and dig in. But it might be better for everyone if we used or invented specific words so we didn't have to have a secondary conversation to clarify our intended meaning.

Another difficult area is when someone says of someone else that he "feels bad". Does that mean that the person "feels bad" emotionally, as in sad or depressed or perhaps discouraged? Is he or she recovering from a failed relationship, a difficult test, a job loss or a death in the family?

Or do his knees hurt, does he have heartburn or a hang-over?

If we only hear that someone "feels bad" we don't have enough (or in fact any) information to make a relevant response.

Most confusing of all, though, is old and new. This pair of words seems fairly obvious in their opposite meanings. Be careful here.

Americans love their cars.The concepts of old and new can be particularly tricky here.

For example, I know someone who buys a new truck every year. For him, an old truck is one approaching one year old.

On the other hand, I have never purchased a new car, so for me, a new may be two or three years old. In fact for me, and most people I know, the word new has nothing to do with age, but has everything to do with when I purchased it. If I just got it, no matter how old it is, it is new to me.

In fact, there are many people in America who collect older cars. When a collector gets a new car, perhaps one from the 1950s or 1970s. Is it a new car or an old car?

It is actually both, but think about how confusing it is when someone says "I just got a new old car!"

This confusion happens across all kinds of areas.

Music can be very confusing in this way. Think of a friend who is collecting music from a particular artist. There may be one CD that has been out of print or unavailable, but was released many years ago.

When your friend gets it he or she may say excitedly "I finally got this new CD I've been looking for". Does the person mean that they got it new - as in new and sealed directly from the store - or that it is new to them and they've never heard it before or do they mean that it is a new remastered compilation of their favorite artist?

And what if I buy a recent CD or DVD, but I buy it used? Is it new? Or old?

Here again someone might say something like "I just got a new, old CD".

English can be very awkward and misleading, so tread carefully as you make your way through this new (and old) language.

It is good to remember that we are all always learning. And it is always more fun to learn together.

Let me know what it is about English that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

My best to you as you make your way through this intriguing , constantly shifting linguistic landscape.


About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf prefers international and independent films, foods he can't pronounce, music no one else has heard of and riding his bicycle in foreign cities.

Posted by mmorf at January 30, 2010 10:36 AM

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