Mother Earth

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Mother Earth

By | June 2013
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English is a Queer Language
Alice Hamilton

Jarmila came to me with this puzzle. “Mrs. Green told me her mother is coming to visit her, and she is going to stay a week. How can she stay if she is going? How can she go if she is staying?” I could not explain, because never before had I realized that “going” may have nothing to do with the verb “to go,” though the latter has its own present participle which seems identical. This other “going” deals only with the future: I am going to see this matter through; he is going to lose his job; she is going to be tired out. None of these examples have anything to do with “to go”. All I could say was a helpless “Well, it is idiomatic.” The next question was also a surprise and also beyond my capacity to explain. Jarmila said, “Somebody asked me if I would not miss Miss Clara while she is away. I know what it means when you say you miss the bus, but how can I miss her when she is not here?” Her next question was even more difficult. Jarmila said, “Is it true that it I means the same thing if you say, ‘The house burned down’ or ‘The house burned up’? Surely if it burned up, that means the fire started in the cellar and worked up, while if it burned down, it started in the attic and worked down.” “No,” I said, “it does not. You can say it either way and it means the same thing.” Jarmila sighed. “I do not understand this “up,” I thought I knew the difference between up and down, but they tell me if is the same if I slow up my car or slow it down. And there are so many ‘up’s that seem quite unnecessary. Why do they tell me to hurry up when I am not going upstairs? And why must I clean up the mess, wrap up the parcel, tidy up my desk? What has ‘up’ to do with it all?” “Well,” I began, rather helplessly, “perhaps ‘clean up’ seems more thorough than just ‘clean.’” Jarmila looked skeptical, and after a period of meditation she came back in triumph. “No,” she said. “’Up’ has nothing to do with thoroughness....