Some Observations About The Quirky English Language — Wash Up, Wash Down & Washed Up

This column is about some of those things you think about from time to time. More of the thrilling stuff about economics soon.

Image by birgl from Pixabay

By David Grace (Amazon PageDavid Grace Website)


Years ago, between bouts of smashing watermelons with a sledgehammer, comedian Leo Gallagher used to entertain his audiences with observations about the English language.

“Why do we park on a driveway,” Gallagher would ask, “and drive on a parkway?” I always thought he was clever to have thought of that.

George Carlin

George Carlin was known to complain that a “near miss” wasn’t the good thing that people thought it was. He would point out that, logically, a “near miss” meant that the bullet fired at your head almost missed you, but, sadly, didn’t.

“I don’t want a near miss,” Carlin would say. “I want a near hit — Oh, my God, that car almost hit us, but didn’t. A near hit.”

It’s All About The Up & The Down

It was against this background of the warped usage of the English language that I began thinking about “up” and “down” and, occasionally, about in and out and off and on.

Wash & Clean

If I’m going to get ready for dinner, my girlfriend might tell me, “Go, wash up.” She would never ask me to “Go, wash down.” Of course, if I had just climbed out of a manure pit someone else might wash me down but another person would not wash me up, and I absolutely would not want to be washed up.

Now, that’s strange when you think about it because if I wash myself up, then, when I’m done, I could tell my girlfriend, “OK, honey, I’m washed up,” but if I wasn’t the person doing the washing then I would not be a guy with newly clean hands, but rather I would be washed up, a failure.

I guess if I do the washing, that’s OK. If the washing is done to me then that’s bad.

And while my girlfriend might ask that I help her clean up the house, she would never ask me to clean it down.

If I make a great investment and receive a ton of money, people might say that I “cleaned up,” but if my stock tumbles into the toilet they would never say, “Poor Dave, he cleaned down.”

On the other hand, I might wash down the driveway. Of course, I would never wash up my driveway. That makes no sense. Though I admit that I might wash up my car and then use the hose to wash down my muddy dog.

Suit Up & Listen Up

And consider that before scampering out onto the field the team always suits up. It never suits down. That would be just plain crazy.

If you’re going to tell me something important, you may order me to listen up. On the other hand, before the music starts the DJ might urge all of us in the club to get down.

Things would never go the other way. I can’t imagine anyone would order me to listen down, and I would only get up if I were still in bed fifteen minutes after the alarm went off.

If I was slouching at the back of the room, my teacher might order me to straighten up. S/he would never demand that I straighten down.

Step Up, Off, Out, Aside, Away & Down

If the time comes for me to do the right thing, my friends might ask me to step up, but if I held an important position and had already done the wrong thing, they might instead urge me to step down. If people are fighting near me I might want to step out.

And, of course, if I was continuing to do the wrong thing, I might be asked to step off, step aside or step away, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

If something bad is growing in your yard people may tell you to cut it down while if something good is on the counter in your kitchen you may be asked to cut it up.

If you’re funny you could be the class cut up, but if your jokes upset too many people you could get cut down.

Pissed Off, Riled Up & Calmed Down

If you really piss me off, you might get me riled up, but if I got too upset you might want me to calm down.

If I was unhappy you might want to cheer me up, but you would never attempt to dampen my anger by pissing me on instead of off.

And if you disliked me and wanted to make me unhappy, you wouldn’t tell people that you were planning to cheer me down.

It would be impossible to rile me down, calm me up, or cheer me down, don’t you agree?

Hmmm, you could piss me off, which is bad, or turn me on, which is good. Kicking me out would be bad, but so would sucking me in.

But you can’t piss me on, cheer me down, kick me in or suck me out. Everybody knows that.

If I excite the crowd by telling them what they want to hear, they might cheer me on with shouts of “Right On!” But if they disliked my message they would not attempt to cheer me off or let me know how much they disagree with my message with cries of “Right off!”.

Is There Any Logic To Any Of This? Not So Much

If I am cleaning/washing myself or doing well it’s a wash up or a clean up. If I am cleaning something other than myself then it’s a wash down.

If my state of mind is extreme, riled, hopped, or if someone wants to make it so, then I might be riled up, hopped up or subject to being cheered up. On the other hand, if someone wants to mute my emotional state then they might want to calm it down or turn it down.

In their song, the Rolling Stones demanded that people, “Start me up.” Possible, but “Start me down”? No.

You can push me down or keep me down, but you can never push me up.

You can pull me up if I’m already down or pull me down if I’m already up.

If things are too noisy, then I’m supposed to keep it down. If I’m doing something quiet but irritating, I may be warned, “Just keep it up and I’m going to put you down.”

I’m Out

This is probably a good place to stop since I can’t seem to find a way to keep this up.

— — — — —

After initially publishing this story a friend sent me the following document with additional peculiarities of the English language. I do not know who wrote this material, it wasn’t me, but I thought it might interest readers who liked the above column:

English is an Odd Language.

  • A bandage is wound around a wound
  • The vegetable farm is used to produce the produce
  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse
  • We must polish the Polish furniture
  • He could lead if he would get the lead out
  • The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert
  • Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present
  • A picture of a bass fish was painted on the head of the bass drum
  • When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes
  • I did not object to the object being placed next to me
  • The health insurance was invalid for the invalid
  • There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row
  • They were too close to the door to close it
  • The buck does funny things when does are present
  • A seamstress is a sewer of hems that sometimes hang down into the sewer
  • To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow
  • The wind was too strong for the sailor to wind the sail
  • Upon seeing the tear in the painting, I shed a tear
  • The Duke had the sheriff subject the king’s subject to a series of tests
  • How can I intimate this knowledge to my most intimate friend?

Let’s face it, English is a crazy language.

  • There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
  • English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France.
  • Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that:

  • Quicksand can work slowly,
  • Boxing rings are square and
  • A guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham?

  • If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth, beeth?
  • One goose, 2 geese. So, one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices?
  • Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend?
  • If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?
  • If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught?
  • If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.

  • In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?
  • Ship by truck and send cargo by ship?
  • Have noses that run and feet that smell?
  • How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?
  • And why doesn’t ‘Buick’ rhyme with ‘quick’ or ‘bough’ rhyme with ‘through’?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up at the same time that it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

— — — —

I wish I had thought of all of that!

— David Grace (Amazon PageDavid Grace Website)

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David Grace

David Grace

Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 16 novels and over 400 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.