Hot Tomato

In 1952 I made friends with a young Air Force Officer from Taiwan, who was in the United States attending special military training. After class I would help him with the English words he didn’t understand. Another classmate in a gesture of international friendship arranged for my new friend to meet an American girl. My Chinese friend came to me with a puzzled look and asked, “What is a Hot Tomato?” “Don’t worry,” I answered, “Your date will not be shaped like our red fruit. In fact, you will probably find her to be a tasty dish.” I then cautioned him to avoid our girls who are cold fish, clinging vines or wallflowers. His smile told me that he didn’t understand a thing I was saying.
The English language can be very confusing to foreigners. In America we drive on parkways and park on driveways. To make matters worse there is no butter in buttermilk or eggs in eggplants. Neither is there pine or apples in pineapples, ham in hamburgers, nor straw in strawberries. Boxing rings are square and tablecloths can both made of plastic or paper. A woman can man a radio station but a man doesn’t woman one. A king rules a kingdom but a queen doesn’t rule a queendom. A writer is someone who writes, and a stinger is something that stings. But fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce, hammers don’t ham and humdingers don’t hum. The plural of goose is geese and the plural of tooth is teeth. Why isn’t the plural of moose, meese? If a horsehair mat is made from the hair of a horses and a camel’s hair brush from the hair of camels, then of what is a mohair coat made? If vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If
pro and con are opposites, is congress the opposite of progress?
Sometimes you have to believe that all English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. If
button and unbutton and tie and untie are opposites, why are loosen and unloosen and ravel and unravel the same? How can quite a lot and quite a few be the same, but overlook and oversee are opposites? Why are pricey objects less expensive than priceless ones? If you decide to be bad forever, you choose to be bad for good; and that if you choose to wear only your left shoe, then your left one is right and your right one is left? Right?
Have you heard the expression where a person has put their
best foot forward? Now let’s see….We have a good foot, a better foot, but do we have a third or best foot? “Put your best foot forward” is akin to “May the best team win.” Usually there are only two teams in the contest. Speaking of feet, how often have you heard a person say that they are going to put on their shoes and socks? Most of us put on our socks first, then our shoes. And just about everyone asks for a hot cup of coffee. Who cares if the cup is hot? What they probably want is a cup of hot coffee. The same goes for the person who is head over heals in love. If you imagine a person doing cartwheels, and then their heels are over their head. Every sign over a low doorway will say watch your head. I haven’t figured out how to follow those instructions. Trying to watch your head is like trying to bite your teeth. Keeping a stiff upper lip when we are afraid is hard to do when it is the lower lip that is quivering. And how can people understand you when you speak with tongue in cheek? My favorite weird saying is about a couple who had a one-night stand. So who was standing?
The English language is really weird. There are certain words that are only used with each other. Caboodle can only appear with kit, cranny with nook, hue with cry, aback with taken, and spic with span. Why must all lucre be filthy, all bystanders innocent, and all bedfellows strange? Here is one last question that has puzzled scholars for decades: If you have a bunch of odds and ends and you get rid of or sell off all but one of them, what is left? Is it an odd or an end?

Read Richard Lederer’s 1989 book called “Crazy English” published by Simon & Schuster.