For many years as a college teacher I taught a course titled The Psychology of Language. Amazingly, even with that title it attracted many students, which made me feel that maybe I was a pretty good teacher. Of course, if I had titled the course The Psychology of Sex, I would have had even more students; but think how disappointed they would have been to walk in and find me talking about Noam Chomsky and transformational grammar, not to mention why sentences with negatives take longer to process than those without them.
Even though it’s been years since I taught Psychology of Language, the topic still fascinates me. Well, maybe “fascinate” is too strong a word. How about “it interests me”? Okay, okay, I’ll say this, It doesn’t quite put me to sleep.
Language presents never-ending mysteries. For example, how about this one: What does it mean when you say something is “deceptively easy”? Does it mean it’s easier than it looks or that it’s harder than it looks? I did some Googling, and while I couldn’t find anything definitive, the consensus seemed to be that it means it’s easier than it looks.
It did take me quite a while to find the answer, though, so I suppose I could say that finding it was deceptively difficult.
And then, just when I thought I had sorted it all out, I Googled once more. I put in “What does deceptively simple mean?” and I got this: “The phrase is usually used with a verb such as ‘looks’ or ‘sounds’. ‘It looks deceptively simple’ means you think it would be simple to do the action or achieve the same result but in reality it would be difficult.”
I’ll tell you what, this is deceptively making me crazy.
Here’s something else. What is the purpose of “Needless to say,” as in “Needless to say, Bill was the biggest jerk at the party”? If it’s needless to say, then why are you saying it? Either it’s not worth saying at all, or it need not be prefaced by “needless to say.”
Needless to say, all this kind of language stuff could drive me nuts.
A similar situation exists for “It goes without saying” and “I don’t have to tell you.” Listen, if it goes without saying, don’t say it. And, good Lord, if you don’t have to tell me, please don’t. I’m busy. If you’ve got something new and exciting to tell me, then go ahead. Otherwise, please, let me enjoy “Access Hollywood” or “Two-and-a-half Men.”
All this unnecessary verbiage begins early. Why does every fairy tale and story we read to children have to begin with “Once upon a time”? First of all, who the heck ever says “Once upon a time” any more? In fact, did people ever say it? Why not just start the story with some action. You don’t have to say, “Once upon a time, in a land faraway, there were three little sisters.” Why not say, “So these three little girls not only had a wicked stepmother but also a wicked stepfather, and their biological parents weren’t all that great either…”?
And talking about children’s stories, how about that classic ending, “And they lived happily ever after”? Needless to say, this is giving kids a very wrong impression about life. Happily ever after? How about the more realistic “Happy for an hour or so” or at best, a day?
Oh yes, back to language and its vicissitudes. Ah, there’s another problem with language: Big words. Do you all know what “vicissitudes” means? I’m not sure I do. I just wrote it because it seemed right, but it’s certainly not a word I use every day. In fact, in conversation, I’ll bet I use it no more than once a year, on what I call “Vicissitude Day.” For those who don’t know the meaning and are too lazy to go to their dictionary app, here’s the definition: “vicissitude: a change or variation occurring in the course of something.”
You know what? I think I used the word wrong. Were he alive today, my father would be ashamed of me. And my brother, my brother the writer, if he sees this, I’ll never hear the end of it.
Aside from the constant problem of finding the right word to use, which we face in speaking as well as writing, another issue in language is ambiguity. For example, take the sentence, “I love to see my spouse cooking.” We tend to think this means that one loves to see one’s spouse at the oven making something. But it could mean that you and your spouse, long unhappy together, have been captured by cannibals, and they find your spouse far more appetizing than you, and so…you get the point.
I could go on and on with such linguistic issues as which came first, the noun or the verb, but I think I’ve said more than enough.