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The joys of English!

There's no doubt English is a rather peculiar language. English grammar and punctuation are riddled with similar inconsistencies. For instance, do you need a coma before an ?and??

india Updated: May 28, 2006 01:12 IST

There's no doubt English is a rather peculiar language. It's not just the way words are spelt and pronounced that's arbitrary but the rules of grammar and punctuation appear to exist only to be flouted.

We all know that B-U-T is but though P-U-T is put yet P-U-T-T sounds just like but.  Why the extra ‘T’ should change the pronunciation of the 'U' is hard to explain.  However add an ‘O’ or ‘I’ -- to make putto or putti -- and the pronunciation of the ‘U’ changes once again.  Now change the last letter to a ‘Y’ -- to make putty -- and you've reversed the sound of the ‘U’!

English grammar and punctuation are riddled with similar inconsistencies.  For instance, do you need a coma before an ‘and’? Should you write ‘a dog, a cat and a horse’ or ‘a dog, a cat, and a horse’?  The answer is both are correct although Lynn Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, believes the coma before the ‘and’ -- the Oxford coma, as it’s called -- is redundant.

Much of this can be great fun. However, what I find most amusing is the origin of the phrases we use everyday. For instance, did you know that the expression ‘it will cost you an arm and a leg’ lies in 18th century portrait painting?  Apparently, at the time the price charged depended on how many limbs were shown in the painting.  The more arms and legs in the picture, the more the work involved and the higher the cost.  Hence the phrase ‘it’ll cost you an arm and a leg’!

The phrase ‘minding your Ps and Qs’ has an equally interesting story behind it.  In the days when beer was served in taverns in pints and quarts, barmaids had to keep a count of and distinguish between customers drinking in pints and those quaffing in quarts.  In other words, she had to ‘mind her Ps and Qs’!

My favourite, however, is the explanation of the phrase ‘it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’. I always thought it was lewd. The truth is quite otherwise.  Hard as it may be to believe, the origin stretches back to the heyday of sailing ships.  At the time, all ships carried iron canons which fired iron balls.  Because it was necessary to keep a good supply of balls near the canon, a way had to be found to do so compactly and without the balls rolling around the deck.  The initial answer was to stack them in a pyramid.  This ensured they didn’t take up too much space but it still left the bottom row free to slide out from underneath.  So a metal plate called a monkey was devised with round indentations to fit the balls.  And to guard against the plate and balls rusting, it was made of brass.  But brass contracts faster and further than iron in cold temperatures.  So when the weather turned freezing, the indentations would shrink and the iron balls would come right off the monkey.  Thus, it was quite literally, ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’!

Even individual words have intriguing histories. For instance, we all gossip and, even those who deny it, enjoy doing so. But the origin of the word lies in the need politicians have for feedback from the public. Long before television or radio, politicians would send their assistants to taverns and pubs with the instruction “go sip some ale” and report on the conversations they heard.  What they returned with came to be called ‘gossip’.

And guess how important people ended up as ‘big wigs’?  It goes back to a time when men regularly wore wigs but that’s not all.  The wealthy wore wigs made of wool which, if washed, would shrink or lose shape.  So, when dirty, they were baked.  The inside dough was scraped out of a large loaf of bread, the wig placed in the shell and baked for thirty minutes.  The heat would make them large and fluffy.  What emerged was literally a big wig.  When worn it was proof the owner was wealthy and powerful.

Finally, do today’s chairmen know their designation has a rather literal origin?  In the early 1700s most English homes could only afford a single chair.  It was kept for the head of the household though the privilege was often shared with important guests.  Consequently the ‘chairman’ was a man of significance.  Incidentally, women were kept standing!