Beware These Words

I have been plagued by the dichotomy of the “ible/able” words my entire life.  These are the words that, as little kids, we’re told are the GPS to success.  However, by the time we become teenagers, we discover that these words are really a double-edged sword.  And then, as adults we realize that, at times, they’re just out and out lies.  Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Sensible

What it’s supposed to mean — Doing the proper thing.
What it actually means — Staying home and studying for your algebra exam while all your friends are at a party so-o-o epic that they’re still talking about it 20 years later!  The one where some guy took your girlfriend, Monica Peters, home — and a week later she dumped you.

Reasonable

What it’s supposed to mean — Looking at all facets of a problem or situation.
What it actually means — You’re going to get your ass kicked trying to explain to the wannabe biker on the Harley that the horn on your fuel- efficient Ford just gets stuck sometimes.

Capable

What it’s supposed to mean — The ability to perform a number of different tasks or duties.
What it actually means — You’re always given the crap jobs ’cause you’re the only one who knows how to do them.

Dependable

What it’s supposed to mean — A consistency that people can rely on
What it actually means — Guess who’s going to be the designated driver — again?

And finally

Responsible

What it’s supposed to mean — Personally taking care of the things required of you.
What it actually means — The night before the big meeting, you meticulously lay out your wardrobe, review your presentation, gather your notes, your charts, pens, paper, a pointer and another pen — just in case.  You arrive 15 minutes early.  Brenda arrives 10 minutes late, looking like she slept in her clothes.  She borrows your extra pen and some paper and scribbles a few lines while Dexter is rambling on about the “Mission Statement.”  Then, when you hesitate because you don’t want to look too pushy, she lays out the most brilliant proposal anybody in the company (including you) has ever heard — the bitch!

The “ible/able” words let you sleep at night, but they’re not very much fun.

Only – A Hardworking Little Word

“Only” is the hardest-working little word in the English language.  It does stuff that other words just dream about.  It modifies nouns, it modifies verbs, it connects phrases and, depending on where you place it, it can change the entire meaning of any sentence.  “Only” has so much talent; I’m sure all the other words are jealous.  But does anybody sing the praises of “only?”  Do you ever hear, “Good job, ‘only?’ or “Thanks, ‘only!’ You really spiced up my sentence?”  Nope!  Never happens!  The truth is, nobody thinks about “only.”  It just hangs out in the dictionary with all the other words (who don’t do half as much work, BTW) waiting for some writer who’s searching for subtlety.  That’s when “only” jumps into the literary fray, without hesitation or fanfare, and gets the job done.  And what a job!  Here are just a few examples of what “only” can do.

It can kick-start an argument

“You phone me when you want to sleep with me.”
A legitimate statement, invitation or dismissal.
“You only phone me when you want to sleep with me.”
Suddenly, somebody’s a jerk and the war’s on.

It can convey emotion.

“He lost his friend when his dog ran away.”
Aww, that’s too bad.
“He lost his only friend when his dog ran away.”
OMG!  That’s s-o-o-o-o sad!

It can turn an ordinary evening into something special.

“She was wearing an apron when he came home.”
“She was only wearing an apron when he came home.”

Pair “only” with “if” and you get a ton of regret.

“If I’d kissed her, she wouldn’t have married Malcolm.”
“If only I’d kissed her, she wouldn’t have married Malcolm.”

Lawyers love “only” because it can mitigate the circumstances.

“She robbed the bank.”
“She only robbed the bank.”

But it can also assign blame.

“When the fire started, he tried to save himself.”
What a quick-thinking individual!
“When the fire started, he only tried to save himself.”
Selfish bastard!

Or it can turn a good deed into a reprimand

“She cleaned out the closet before she sat down and watched TV.”
Very responsible.
“She only cleaned out the closet before she sat down and watched TV.”
Lazy snot!

Or it can change the meaning entirely.  And this is where “only” really flexes its muscles.  Take a look at this single simple sentence.

“She told him that she loved him.”

Now, sit back and see how “only” changes the meaning — seven different times.

Only she told him that she loved him.
She only told him that she loved him.
She told only him that she loved him.
She told him only that she loved him.
She told him that only she loved him.
She told him that she only loved him.
She told him that she loved only him.

I think it’s time we all take a moment out of our busy lives, pour a glass and drink a toast to “only,” the unsung hero of syntax and semantics.

“Here’s to you, ‘only!’  Keep up the good work!”

English Is Sneaky

English is an incredible language.  It has the delicate touch of Da Vinci’s smile or the turbulent sweep of a Constable sky.  It is the paint we use to conjure our audience’s imagination.  With it, we can flutter a hummingbird’s wing or charge the gates of Hell with righteous fury.  We can do anything with English — including hiding what we want to say in the very words we use to say it.  These are the sneaky words.  They’re usually an oxymoron like “preventable accident,” which sounds totally benign until you realize it actually means “You weren’t watching, you ignorant dolt.  If you’d been paying attention, none of this would’ve happened!”  Face it, folks: that’s exactly what a “preventable accident” really is.  There are a bunch of sneaky words like this that carry all kinds of baggage with them.  Here are just a few more.

1 — Minor crisis – This is a sneaky way of either ramping up the drama or playing down the problem.  The truth is, if it’s a crisis, it isn’t minor; and if it’s minor, it isn’t a crisis.  Either way, anyone who starts yipping about a “minor crisis” is probably riding the incompetence train.

2 — So-called – This is one of those tattletale words that instantly lets us know who the author is cheering for.  No matter how objective they may claim to be, when somebody says “so-called,” it’s never positive, and the connotation is always, “You can call it whatever you like, but we all know what’s going on here, you lying bastard.”

3 — Least favourite – These words have gotten a lot sneakier in recent history.  Back in the day, it was just a slippery way to say, “I don’t like that” without hurting anybody’s feelings.  But, these days, with the addition of 21st century sarcasm, the sky’s the limit on how far down the scrotum pole this can put you.

4 — No offence – These are the words we use when we’ve just offended somebody and we’re worried about getting punched in the face.  Normally, we tack them on at the end when we suddenly realize what we just said.  However, sometimes, when we want to get a kick in, we lead with them, and then add a “but” and a pause to let everybody know we’re the ones doing the punching this time.

5 — Open secret – Here’s another couple of tattletale words that tells us the author thinks he’s a lot smarter than we are.  The premise is there’s secret information available, but only a select group of people who are in-the-know, know it — and the connotation is always – not you.

6 — Zero tolerance – These are the words we use when we know we have a problem but we also know we can’t (or won’t) do anything about it.  For example, “Our school has zero tolerance for bullies.” means the skinny kid with glasses is still going to get kicked around like it’s World Cup, but once a year, we’re going to let him wear a pink t-shirt.

7 — Working holiday (vacation) – These are the sneakiest words in the universe.  They can mean anything.
a) – Your husband forces you to take a vacation, but you can’t stand the man, so you stay in the hotel and work.
b) – You want a vacation, but you have too much work to do.  So you go to Mexico and party with your girlfriend for two weeks and do all the work on the flight home.
c) – You want a vacation, but you’re broke– so you talk your company into sending you to a conference somewhere.
d) – You discover the dream vacation you booked online is a pestilent hole – “Oh, well!  Might as well get some work done.”

And finally:

8 — Passive aggressive – We all know what this means.  We all know someone who practices this dark art with delicious glee.  We all know we’d like to slap them for doing it.  However, we just don’t have the cojones to call them on it.  So instead of creating a scene with shouting, denial and tears, we say they’re passive aggressive (as if it’s an incurable mental condition) and put up with their manipulating bullshit.