Have you ever thought what a peculiar language we all speak? It must be confusing for someone from another country who is starting to learn English. Not just foreigners really as my grandchildren had a few problems with, amongst other things, plurals. Why they asked if it was all right to speak of a herd of cows couldn’t you have a flock of sheeps? True we do not have to contend with a system of male and female words, as do the French. However consider the letters “ough”. When they occur in English words the way they are pronounced depends on the letter preceding them. Perhaps if you have a cold you might also have a nasty hacking “Cow”. You might hope to steal a kiss beneath the mistletoe “Buff” or complain if the steak you were served was rather “Toff”. Confusing isn’t it?
Another problem arises with the fact that many of our words have multiple meanings. To box something can mean to place the item in a container such as a carton or chest, possibly before despatching it to someone else. To box can also mean to fight, usually with suitable gloves on, with another person in a square ring (yet another oddity). A Christmas box could be that in which a gift arrives but traditionally it is a gift, usually cash, from an individual to tradesmen in recognition of the fact that they have served the individual well over the previous twelve months. Another pair of meanings that are perhaps not quite as obvious concerns the word mere. We are all familiar with an expression such as “a mere trifle!” when mere means only. But the word also means a stretch of water or lake. Think of Windermere for example.
More confusing can be dome of the expressions that we use. If you get off “scot free” one might assume that that you were not being bothered by someone from Glasgow or elsewhere north of the border. In fact the Scot in this phrase refers to a tax, similar to our Council Tax, levied in medieval times. Some expressions have a more recent origin. We often say “Back to square one” meaning that, despite ones best efforts, we are really no further forwards with the task in hand. There may be a number of possible sources for this expression but my favourite lays the blame, if such it be, firmly at the door of the BBC. Back in the days, that many of us remember, when there was no television service the BBC broadcast commentaries on football matches and other sporting events on the radio. To help the listener visualise what was happening the Radio Times, for a short while, published a diagram of the pitch divided into numbered squares. Whilst the main commentator was describing the action on the pitch a second voice would chip in with the number on the plan that corresponded with the area that play had reached. Inevitably the attack on the opposition’s goal would be defeated and play would move back down the pitch.
At which point the second voice would declare “back to square one”. The listening audience didn’t take to the system so the publication of the squared plans was soon dropped. Commentaries however continue to inform the British public of a wide range of sporting events.