Wednesday, July 25, 2018

English Is Good, Weird Fun

I’ve been putting together book versions of this blog, and in the process I’ve been giving the whole thing a good line edit. There’s a difference between a blog and a book, at least as far as I’m concerned. Writing for this blog, I do try to get the spelling and the grammar as close to correct as can quickly be accomplished, and I do try to polish awkward sentences a bit before I push, “publish.” I go fast, though, so there have often been areas that could profit from more rewriting. In making some of the posts into books, I’m doing that last rewrite and a close line edit. It’s fascinating.

The English language provides the fascination. I’ve been learning about the fine points of grammar, vocabulary, and spelling, which is fun. The difference in the use of “loath” and “loathe,” for instance. Here is a section that’s got me thinking about this process:

“By now, of course, the evangelicals have grown in importance by leaps and bounds. Bounds and more bounds! They hardly know any bounds these days!”

I was very pleased with this section when I wrote it, for the simple reason that it uses two senses of the word, “bounds.”  Editing that post, I thought it wise to look up the words in my Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which was by far the most cost-effective huge etymological dictionary available at my nearest retail outlet at the time. (It’s a British English dictionary, but it is very careful to point out differences in spelling and usage between the British and the American versions of the language.) I had used it correctly in both cases, but it was interesting to see the word, “bound,” listed four times in a row. There was a verb, and a noun, and an adjective, with the past participle of another verb thrown in for good measure. All of them had very different origins.

There’s bound, verb, to walk or run with leaping strides (or as a noun, a leaping movement towards or over something). That one derives from the French, bond (n.), bondir (v.), originally appearing as the Latin word, bombus, meaning “humming.” 

Then there’s bound, noun, a boundary (in technical matters, a limiting factor). (As a verb, to form the boundary of something.) This one arrived in the English from the Old French noun, bodne, which in turn derived from the Medieval Latin noun, bodina.

There is also an adjective, bound, meaning that something is going towards somewhere. In this case, the word appeared first in Middle English as boun, from the Old Norse, buinn, the past participle of bua, “to get ready.”

The last of the four “bounds” is the past participle of the verb, “to bind,” which is another story altogether. I should have added to the above, "It's as though they were not bound by the laws of gravity! Perhaps they should be bound to a tree!" 

People who are just learning English love to complain about the complexity of the grammar and the huge vocabulary, but they don’t know the half of it. It’s an endless puzzle that no one ever really masters completely. I’m pretty sure that even old Winston Churchill would have admitted that he still came across English words and usages that he was not quite sure of.

Take heart, you English learners. We’re all in the same boat! There is always more to learn about English. Nobody could say with a straight face that learning English is easy, but it is endlessly fascinating, and it is a wonderfully useful language, capable of great precision and beauty.

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