• Eileen Wittig

My Native Language Makes No Sense

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

“Dad is such a sport,” I texted my mom recently.

While I waited for her response to that very chummy statement (she left me on read), I looked at the sentence. Why had I used the word “sport”? What would a non-native English speaker make of that phrase? “He’s a sport… he’s an athlete?”

“No, it means he’s game.”

“Game? Like, a toy? Or like something you hunt?”

“No, it means he’s up for anything.”

“He’s up? So he's standing?”

“No, like, he’s down.”

“He’s down now? He was just up.”

“Yeah, up for anything. Because he’s down for whatever. ‘Cause he’s game. ‘Cause he’s a sport.”


As the great orator John Mulaney painfully pointed out once, I (and he) spent $120,000 for a degree in a language I already spoke.

Has it been worth it? He’s rich and famous, so he’d say, “Probably.” I would agree, because I paid for the right to tell my company's CEO, COO, and everyone else in my life who has admirably asked me for advice, that they were wrong. Wrong when they thought they could have a verb for a corporate value, wrong when they left participles dangling all over the damn place, wrong when their thumbs were trigger-happy and put two spaces between words in the middle of a sentence, and wrong when they wanted to mis-spell a made-up word (linguistics and grammar applies to made-up words too!). In these moments I am filled with a moral certainty that no one and nothing can take away from me -- except my undying exacerbation at the fact that they tried to value a verb, left participles dangling everywhere, put two spaces in the middle of a sentence, and absolutely insisting on mis-spelling their made-up word. (That word is selfullness, by the way, and it should be selfulness. It shouldn't exist at all, but it should at least be spelled accurately.)

But the weight of the knowledge of and -- in the eyes of everyone who comes to an English major for editing -- responsibility for an entire frickin language is a heavy burden, because you start to realize that not only does everyone around you talk like an absolute deranged dolt, but that the language itself makes no bloody sense and is actually kind of offensive to one’s sense of sensibilities. Why? Because it’s a mishmash (wtf is that word) of phrases that either made sense Once Upon a Time in context, made sense in their original language (shout out real quick once to all the German phrases my Wisconsinite family translated literally), or made sense before we came up with more exceptions than rules, because damn The Man. For example:

“I before E except after C.” Well my name is Eileen, so that one’s dead in the water.

“Dead in the water.” What a charming turn of phrase.

“Turn of phrase.” What on earth does that even mean? Technically, breaking it down, like, what?

“What on earth.” What does Earth have to do with it? Can’t Earth leave well enough alone?

“Leave well enough alone.” This one is just sloppy, because it’s skipped a step. It should be, “Leave what is well enough off as it is, alone.” Much better. But too long, because we’re lazy af.

“Lazy af.” First of all, “f” is technically either a verb or an exclamation, not a noun, as it’s used here. But, fine, we’ll lighten up and let it exist as a noun, which makes us either liars or lousy lovers. Because if you are literally lazy af, you are either not lazy at all, or your f-ing is f-ing terrible.

But don’t even get me started on the German language. Ach du lieber Himmel.

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