BrainLazy has had a pretty major face lift, and we’ve really come a long way in the world. In honor of this, I’d tried to leave some of my old go-to articles behind and play the part of a respectable, professional part of the media. Then I realized that no one respects me, and I pay my own salary, so to hell with that, I’m going to ramble about the English language some more.
Not so long ago I was having an discussion with an associate about finding some artists willing to donate some time to produce content for the site, since these stick figures are starting to come off as a little lame. I eventually said, “I hope we can find some artists to patronize.” I was going for “patron of the arts” patronize, not “stop patronizing me” patronize. Naturally the listener thought I meant the other one, and I spent a few minutes trying to explain myself. How is it that the same word can mean a good thing (buy things from someone regularly), a bad thing (condescend to someone), and another good thing (support an artist) all at the same time? I’m told that one meaning uses the “pat on the head” pronunciation of patronize, and the other uses the version with a long A, but no one could agree on which was which, and even if they could agree, it wouldn’t help in writing. (By the way, I was going to say “pat” as in pate, but then I realized that those four letters somehow manage to spell the name of a french meat paste that totally isn’t pronounced that way. Don’t get me started on that.) Seriously, the least they could do is throw a few extra letters in there to differentiate the meanings. I vote we gather up the negative meanings, tweak the spelling, and call it a new word. From now on, when I talk down to someone, I won’t be patronizing, I’ll be patronifinicating instead.
Sometimes the problem isn’t telling a word apart, it is agreeing on precisely what the word means in comparison to another. Take burp and belch, for instance. Lots of people out there will use them interchangeably, but speaking as a eructation afficionado I see a clear distinction between them. For my money, a burp is a small thing. Mouth open, throat closed, heavy on the treble, light on the bass. Babies burp. Children burp. A belch, on the other hand, is another thing entirely. Greater volume, in both the size and the loudness meanings, and much deeper report. A belch is a burp from the diaphragm. If you’ve ever been asked “Did you get any on ya?”, or if you actually DID get some on you, that was a almost certainly a belch. For me it is an extremely useful distinction. I wish there was a similar one for a deeper and more substantial fart. At first I thought felch would be a good candidate. Then I looked to see if it meant something. Then I spent two weeks trying desperately to unlearn that delightful nugget of wisdom.
In the same arena as burp and belch is whiff and sniff. Sure, there are times when whiff and sniff are equivalent, but context occasionally lends a finer nuance to the meaning. Generally speaking, a whiff isn’t your idea, it just sort of happens to you. It is the olfactory equivalent of a glimpse. A sniff is a deliberate act. If you are looking for proof, it is all there in the words you associate with each. You catch a whiff. You take a sniff. Passive versus active. In my experience, a sniff follows a whiff. “I think I just got a whiff of rancid tuna. (Sniff) Yes, yes I certainly did.” By definition, then, a sniff is more substantial than a whiff.
I could go on like this, but I don’t want to wear out my welcome on the subject of linguistic foibles, so I’ll cut it off here. Don’t worry. Not a day goes by that I don’t find some irritating or confusing aspect of the language that sends me off on a rant, so you can expect another one of these before too long. If there are any English speakers out there that have any other grievances that they want aired, then by all means let me know. I’m always looking for new and exciting ways to sound like a crotchety English teacher before I hit the age of thirty. And if there are any non-English speakers out there with complaints about your own language, you can let us know that too, I just won’t know what you’re saying. Which will make us even, I guess. At any rate, that’s it for now. Get back to work.