Have you ever noticed how many ways we can say something using the English language? There is a plethora, an abundance, a wealth, a cornucopia, or as some might say, “Too damn many.” With all these options, our language gets quite complicated.
The other day, I was filling out a crossword puzzle and one of the clues was, “The whole range.” The answer was “gamut.” In other words, the clue was simply another way of saying the same thing. We can either say, “it ran the gamut” or “it ran the whole range.” While we do save one word by using “gamut,” it’s curious to me how often these variations occur in everyday communications.
Take the word “stuff.” This one word represents the full gamut of definitions (see what I did there?). For instance, you can use it to identify an unspecific accumulation of things (“Son, put your stuff away”). It can also be said about the Thanksgiving meal preparation and how we feel afterwards (“I need to stuff the turkey” and “After eating so much pumpkin pie, I’m stuffed.”). It can refer to a generic unrecognizable substance (“What is that stuff on your shoe?”). And it can be an aura (“She’s got that special stuff.”) and a baseball pitching term (“He puts a lot of stuff on his curve ball.”). And finally, it’s a substitute for “etc.” (“We played cards, watched a movie, and stuff like that.”).
In those specific contexts, we typically understand how the word “stuff” is being used and do not need any additional information. However, sometimes, we need clarifiers to help us out. For instance, the word “doctor” has a number of uses. It can refer to a physician who is a medical doctor, a dentist who is a mouth doctor, or a veterinarian who is an animal doctor. If we didn’t have these clarifiers, we might inadvertently seek care for a broken leg from a doctor who would encourage us to simply brush and floss more often or another who might just put us down. There are also witch doctors who apparently have some sort of abilities but may not have completed any formal university credits. And while we’re at it, I don’t think Dr. Pepper or Dr. Dre have any specific medical education. Speaking of education, professors are also referred to as “doctors” because they have doctoral degrees. The same cannot be said for other degrees. I have never once been called a “Bachelor Ron” or a “Master Culberson” because of my educational background—thank goodness.
Then, there are the words that mean the same thing…exactly. The word “irregardless” is identical to “regardless” except that it involves more letters and an extra syllable. So regardless of which one you use, you’re right. The word “twelve” also means “dozen.” So, choosing one might be dependent on whether we’re referring to disciples or donuts. I get a migraine just thinking about it, and even treatment for that gets complicated because if I want to lie down, I must choose between a “couch” or a “sofa”. And if I want to take some ibuprofen I’d need to decided whether to “twist” the lid off or “untwist” it. Now, as you can see, I’m starting to “unravel”…or is it “ravel?” I think you catch my drift (and I don’t even know how one catches a drift).
At least with the words that mean the same thing, using one over the other is not a mistake. However, some words sound alike yet mean something entirely different. For instance, if you said that you had “lead” a committee yesterday, you haven’t really “led” it but instead, you apparently weighed it down. With a similar sounding word, “it’s” a matter of using both the write spelling and the proper punctuation to make “its” meaning clear. While you might think interchanging these words is not a big deal, you must realize that “they’re” similar in the way they sound but “their” meaning is not. “There” should be no mistake about that. The “effect” of misuse will dramatically “affect” how your words are perceived. I must admit that while it’s nice to get “two” words for the sound of one, “too” often we apply the right sound “to” the wrong meaning.
Before I wrap this up, let me address a few language choices that give me pause. When someone says “I could care less,” they’re actually saying that they could care less. But what they likely mean is, “I could not care less.” And while most of us couldn’t care less that they could care less, we do care about the proper use of the language. Similarly, when someone refers to a person who “walks the walk,” I have no idea what they mean. There is a phrase which refers to an individual who is a role model and does what they say they will do but that person “walks the talk.” When one says that someone “walks the walk,” it’s like saying they “drive the drive” or “read the read” and to me, that just sounds weird while being repetitively redundant.
Finally, as a proud Appalachian, I would be remiss if I did not mention a few colloquialisms that come from certain regions, cultures, and backgrounds. When I first met my wife, she asked if I wanted to go to a movie. I said, “I reckon.” She said, “You what?” Apparently, her New York ears had never heard the phrase “I reckon” which in the south is similar to “I guess” or “I suppose.” That same year, I asked my dorm roommate to “pull the door to.” He said, “Pull it to what?” Here again, this was a phrase common among my family and community but unfamiliar to my classmate. I also discovered that we used the word “eye” to refer to the element on a stove. But I haven’t found anyone outside of my hometown who uses that word in the same context.
Language is funny stuff. The key is to pay attention to what is said and what is heard. Once we understand all of the idiosyncrasies, we should be able to communicate just a little bit gooder.