Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

Dear Richard Lederer:
My two-year-old granddaughter came in from the beach, shed her swimsuit and said, “I’m naked!”
Momma said, “Naked as what?”
She replied, “A jaybird!”
Why, considering practically none of our avian neighbors are customarily clothed, is the jaybird a reference for nudity? And in the comparison happy as a clam, why are clams so happy?” – Dennis Sullivan

To arrive at an answer, one needs to know that the expression naked as a jaybird is elliptical; that is, something is left out. When we discover the missing part, we unlock the origin and true meaning of the phrase. Here’s the first printed citation (1893) of naked as a jaybird: “He will have the humbug qualifications of a cowboy stripped from his poor worthless carcass so quickly that he will feel like a jay bird with his tail feathers gone.” Turns out that a jaybird is naked only when some of its nether plumage is missing.

Similarly, happy as a clam is little more than half of the original saying, the full simile being happy as a clam at high tide. A clam at high tide is sensibly happy because, in high water, humans can’t capture the shellfish to mince, steam, bake, stuff, casino or Rockefeller it, and high tide brings small, yummy organisms to the little mollusk.

Similarly, although we usually say, the proof is in the pudding, the full expression is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Similarly, to harp on, meaning “to dwell on the same topic,” is in fact a shortening of the old phrase to harp on one string, which meant “to play the same note on a harp string over and over.”

Dear Richard Lederer: Not only does English boast more words and more synonyms than any other language, but I’ve also noticed that practically every English word has more than one meaning. This is not true for many/most other tongues. It is another quality that makes English both the best language for communication and the most difficult to learn for non-native speakers. – Michael Leonard Creditor

It’s true indeed that in English most nouns, verbs and modifiers take on multiple meanings. The champion is run. Turns out it’s actually our longest word, in the sense that with 645 — you read that right: 645 — meanings, run takes up more room in our biggest, fattest dictionaries than any other word.

But how many meanings can run have beyond “to move rapidly on alternate feet”? Well, you can run a company, run for the school board, run the motor of your car, run a flag up a pole, run up your debts, run your stocking, run your mouth, run a fence around a property, run an idea past a colleague, run the numbers, run an antagonist through with your sword, run an ad in a newspaper, run into a childhood friend, never run out of meanings for run — and your nose can run and your feet can smell!

Run takes up half again as much space as its nearest competitors, put and set. So the three “longest” words enshrined in our dictionaries are each composed of three letters. Rounding out the top 10 most synonymous words — each but a single syllable — are, alphabetically, cast, cut, draw, point, serve, strike and through.

I do take issue with your claim that English is “the most difficult language to learn for foreign speakers.” People often say to me that English must be a downright arduous and intimidating tongue for foreigners to master. How difficult can it be, I answer, when 52.5% (and that percentage is growing) of all speakers of English did not learn it as their native language? Here’s how one of these come-latelies to English, Hungarian-born Stephen Baker, expresses his passion for his adopted language:

No doubt, English was invented in heaven. It must be the lingua franca of the angels. No other language is like it. Nothing comes even close to it in sound, eloquence and just plain common sense — and this from someone who spoke nary a word of it before reaching age 25, save for Coke, OK and drugstore.

You will be surprised to hear me say this: English is probably among the easiest languages to learn — because grammatically it makes sense. Anyone who tells you it isn’t should take a trip around the world and listen to tongues wagging. He’ll be happy to come home again.