An awful lot of words

(Or a lot of awful words.)

While I was writing a recent post, I started thinking about the following words (and there are more similar):

awe (n) – awe (v) – awesome / awful (adj)
dread – dread (v) – ?dreadsome / dreadful (adj)
fear (n) – fear (v) – fearsome / fearful / afraid (adj)
fright (n) – fright / frighten (v) – ?frightsome / frightful / frightening / frightened (adj)
terror (n) – terrify (v) – terrible / terrifying / terrified / terrific (adj)

The questions which arise are ‘Who does what to whom?’/‘Who feels that way?’ and ‘Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’. Awesome is good, but awful is now almost always bad. Originally, we were full of awe, but there are references to God being awful. The most common uses of awful now are in the noun phrases an awful lot and an awful thing. An awful lot and an awful thing aren’t full of awe, and probably we aren’t, either. 

This is even more so when these words are used as adverbs:

It was awesome/awful of you to do that v It was awesomely/awfully kind of you to do that.
It was dreadful of you to do that v It was dreadfully kind of you to do that. 
It was fearful of you to do that v It was fearfully kind of you to do that. 
It was frightful/frightening of you to do that v It was frightfully/frighteningly kind of you to do that. 
It was terrible/terrifying/terrific of you to do that v It was terribly/terrifyingly/terrifically kind of you to do that. 

This process is called semantic bleaching, or “the reduction of a word’s intensity”, which is really very common, as Merriam-Webster explains.

(By the way, dreadsome and frightsome are in dictionaries, but are obviously very rare. If I was writing a historical fantasy novel, I would have a character nick-named Dreadsome.)

(I seem to remember a cartoon in which a primary school teacher says to a student something like “There are two words I will not tolerate in this classroom. One is cool and the other is groovy.” The student replies “Cool! What are they?” I can’t find that, but there is definitely one of a father saying to two children “There are some words I will not tolerate in this house – and ‘awesome’ is one of them”. There’s nothing wrong with awesome – it’s just overused.) [Edit: it may have been swell and lousy – see the comments below.]

Signs of ambiguity

Youtube more-or-less randomly showed me two ads with similar taglines: 

We’re built for growing businesses.


Your business matters.

Ambiguity in English arises for a number of reasons. One is that a gerund-particle (like growing) can be used in a noun-type way (We’re built for the purpose of growing businesses), or an adjective-type way (We’re built for businesses which happen to be growing). In this case, the ambiguity is small, and probably deliberate. 

Compare Moving pianos can be dangerous (which can have both interpretations), Tuning pianos can be dangerous (which can only have the noun-type meaning) and Falling pianos can be dangerous (which can only have the adjective-type meaning). Note that the ambiguity can be resolved by using a different verb tense: Moving pianos is dangerous (gerund) v Moving pianos are dangerous (participle).

Another reason for ambiguity is that many words ending with –s (like matters) can be a plural noun or a 3rd person present simple verb. In this case, the full stop probably forces the verb interpretation. Even without the full stop, most people would find the verb interpretation, which creates a complete sentence, in preference to the noun interpretation, which creates a noun phrase: compare Your business matters are important to us

Last weekend we went for a drive in the Blue Mountains. I saw a sign saying Falling rocks, and thought that it probably doesn’t, especially from the height of the cliffs there. Another sign said Slow buses, in which slow might be an adjective or an imperative verb. In this case, most people would find the incomplete adj + noun interpretation. In the imperative verb + noun interpretation, there are further options if you are the bus driver, a super-hero or a pedestrian. 

Today we drove in another direction. We visited a business which proclaimed Growing since 1919. Especially apt for an orchard/nursery/garden supplies business. One of the banners in the outdoor furnishing section stated Dark matters, which I couldn’t quite figure either way.  

Take a photo for me

A document contained a sentence by an applicant similar to:

The police searched my office and took a photo for me with [another person].

The context made it clear that they took a photo of him. Take a photo of me has at least two meanings, but take a photo for me probably has only one (the second is possibly possible, but I can’t think of a context in which it would be a reasonable interpretation).

In the movie Airplane!/Flying High! a group of reporters attends the airport’s control tower (looking very un-1979). After asking the flight controller some questions, the chief reporters says to his colleagues, “Okay, boys, let’s get some pictures”. They then physically remove some framed photos from the wall. Get some pictures has two meanings in that context, but I’m trying to think of whether it would in my original sentence: The police got some pictures of me. 


Thank you Captain Obvious of the roads department for that insight into the physics of rocks. They actually do stop, once they reach the bottom of the cliff or the top of your car, whichever comes first.

I’m being silly, of course. The two signs said falling rocks (warning) and do not stop (advice/direction).

“You may now kiss the priest”

All of the languages I know anything about, and probably all languages ever, have words that mean two or more completely different things, with greater or lesser chance of confusion depending on whether two meanings are likely to be used in the same context.

The Korean word 신부 (shin-bu) means priest and bride, which are very likely to be used in the same context. A Korean Anglican priest friend of mine sometimes posts information about seminars on his Facebook book page, and Facebook’s autotranslator usually renders the keynote speaker as eg Hong Gil-dong Bride rather than Hong Gil-dong Priest. (“You may now kiss the 신부” wasn’t in our wedding service; in fact it’s not officially in any church wedding service I know anything about.)

I have just stumbled across (I have forgotten exactly how) the 2004 Korean movie 신부수업 (shin-bu su-oeb), which is either ‘the priest’s lesson’ or ‘the bride’s lesson’ (or possibly deliberately both). Probably to avoid spoiling the ambiguity, the movie is titled Love, so divine in English (with a nod to the hymn When I survey the wondrous cross). Youtube has the complete movie, which is not subtitled in English, which I’m probably going to get sucked into watching anyway, in the name of linguistic research. (Trailer half-way down this page.)

At the beginning there is neither a priest nor a bride; he is a Roman Catholic seminarian and she is a soon-to-be-single woman. At the end, there can only be one of a priest or a bride; either he stays true to his priestly vocation or they get married (or at least coupled). (If it was the Anglican Church of Korea, which also uses the title 신부, there’d be no problem.)

 (Both meanings of 신부 are derived from Chinese, but have different Chinese characters: 神父 for priest and 新婦 for bride.)

(There is another movie 어린 신부, which is either about a young priest or a young bride. A brief search clearly answers that one.)

(PS I showed my wife the movie poster and title in Korean, and asked which she thought of first when she heard or read 신부. She pointed at the woman, but then said “The man’s clothes look like 신부님”, so maybe ‘priest’ is always/often used with the honorific. At several points in the movie so far, the young man has addressed the older priest as 신부님.)

(PPS Now that I’ve watched the whole movie, I’m not totally sure about how it ended. Whichever way, it was very understated. I might have to ask my wife to watch at least the last few scenes. But I’m sure that the 신부 of the title is the young man/seminarian/future priest.)

(PPPS The bigger question is how native speakers and second language learners of any language resolve ambiguities, including homonyms.)

Curiouser and curiouser

I recently discovered the Youtube channel It’s okay to be smart, hosted by Joe Hanson, which presents bite-sized chunks of general science at about my level of general science. He finishes each video saying “Stay curious”. I assume that means wondering and eager to learn or know, and not causing interest and speculation by being unusual. I assume the first meaning came first. Because of the two meanings, it is (just) possible to say “Very curious people are often very curious”.

oo or u

A document referred to the “Pashtoon” people of Afghanistan, which is the spelling used in the applicant’s written submissions. The usual spelling is Pashtun, and quotations from other sources in the document used that spelling. 

The advantage of using <u> instead of <oo> is that it’s one less letter. The disadvantage is that the default pronunciation of <u> is /ʌ/, so Pashtun would possibly rhyme with Dunne, whereas the default pronunciation of <oo> is /u:/, so it would definitely rhyme with Doone

According to Google Ngrams, Pashtoon dates from 1945 and 1953, which is puzzling, given the British wars in Afghanistan from 1839 (maybe they were just Afghans or natives in those days, because there was no reason to distinguish any one group from any other). The two spellings were used about the same until Pashtun became the preferred spelling from the 1980s (the Soviet invasion) and especially 2005 (the US invasion).

Compare Hindoo and Hindu, where there is no ambiguity of pronunciation: <u> at the end of a word can only be /u:/. The two spellings were used about the same until Hindu became the preferred spelling from the 1940s (leading up to Indian independence). 

Two more words which spring to mind are igloo (Inuit) and kangaroo (Guugu Yimithirr). Igloo is now linguistically transcribed as iglu, while the first recorded spelling of kangaroo was kanguru (Joseph Banks) and the linguistically reconstructed spelling is gangurru. (Various other spellings were used along the way.) Needless to say, the standard and most common spellings in English are igloo and kangaroo (and Pashtun and Hindu). While the plural of iglu is igluit and the plural of gangurru is gangurru-ngay (Haviland 1979),  the plurals in English are igloos and kangaroos (though Linus van Pelt attempted to make igli out of eggshells). Note that in Inuit, iglu refers to any kind of house, while in Guugu Yimithirr, gungurru refers to one specific species of macropod. Also, the people of the Sydney region had no idea what the British were talking about when they used this North Queensland word.

There are also the Chinese names Hu and Hoo, Wu and Woo, which seem to be interchangeable, but for some reason Hoo Jintao looks less presidential than Hu Jintao. Korean 문 can be Mun (ambiguous) or Moon (unambiguous, but possibly causing confusion with the the identically-spelled English word). I once had a colleague with the first name Mun (rhyming with Dunne), who I think was of Malay or Singapore Chinese heritage.

The editor of your dreams

I was in the process of researching another post which I may or may not finish, and spotted an ad saying:

Find your dream editor

Is that an editor of the kind you dream about (if you actually dream about editors!), or someone who edits dreams? Given the disjointed dreams I’ve been having lately, I need the latter. You’d think that dream editors wouldn’t write ambiguous ad headings.

Note that “the editor of your dreams” is also ambiguous, but compare “the wo/man of your dreams” (and a “dream catcher”).

my guide

Speaking of bachs: In December 1933 the German composer Richard Strauss wrote a song titled Das Bächlein, (originally for voice and piano but the first recording that came up is for voice and orchestra), in which a wanderer asks a mountain stream where it came from and where it is going. It answers “I come from the womb of dark rocks. A merry childlike spirit drives me onward, I know not whither. He who called me forth from the rock, He, I think, shall be my guide.”

Strauss set the words for my guide rhapsodically. There can be no doubt that he realised the double meaning of mein führer (leader/guide). There is still debate about his interactions with the Nazi regime, even though he was cleared by a denazification tribunal in 1948. In the early days he might have seen it as the (or a) solution to the chaos of the previous 20 years, but after he reluctantly accepted the position of president of the Reichsmusikkammer he quickly lost whatever illusions he had and fell from favour, especially because of his professional relationship with author Stefan Zweig and personal relationship with his daughter-in-law and her family. The song wasn’t published until after his death. 

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