Word Confusion

Some words are created to communicate, while others just to confuse. I thought I read “ruminative” on an article about what Fran Lebowitz has to say about her current state of staying at home, but it is actually “remunerative”. I don’t know about native speakers, but as a person learning English as a second language, I’ve always struggled with such kind of confusions–words that look alike but mean very different things. Actually this is not my biggest frustration. The crown has to be given to vowels, which my ears can’t distinguish and my mouth can’t pronounce the difference. “Pot” and “port”, “wit” and “wheat”. Actually half of the vowels are troublesome. A teacher used to teach us to twist our mouths in order to pronounce different vowels, but my tongue and my lips just couldn’t be managed. It’s as impossible as those difficult dance steps that the body just can’t perform. Well at least distortion of the tongue and the lips is a way to make improvement–even if I can’t master it myself. When it comes to listening, there’s no way to deal with one’s ear to make it distinguish the different vowels. I was told to “listen” and to “listen carefully”, and I did. My ears were strained to utmost attention, only to hear the same sound comes out of “thick” and “sick”. Fortunately most of the lectures I attended and most of the presentations I gave were based on contexts, without which who knows how much miscommunication and misunderstanding might arise.

Insomnia vs. Somnia

“Somnia” is not a word; “insomnia” is. That’s just English. Non-native speakers (like me) beware. There are as many exceptions to the rules as those that follow the rules. Not only many words starting with “in” don’t have corresponding antonyms that lose the prefix “in”, but also some “in” and non-“in” pairs completely disregard the convention that they should be contradictory to each other. For example, “valuable” and “invaluable”, “sure” and “insure”, just to mention a couple of them. Sometimes one can’t help wondering if the rules are entirely necessary. With the exceptions to the rules being so numerous, what’s the point of setting the rules?

I’ve been having this insomnia for more than two weeks and I am bewildered with this new development. I used to sleep so well. Sometimes even before my head touched the pillow, I would be gone to a dream of oblivion. I could also sleep at my desk during lunch time if I had not had sufficient sleep the night before due to various reasons. My friends are often amazed at my power of falling sleep and I suspect that I am remembered and will be remembered as the person who can sleep, though I’ve never made the inquiries. It would be weird to ask people, “are you going to remember me as the one who can sleep.”

Now I can’t sleep anymore. At midnight every day, I don’t feel that usual sleepiness, though my body feels tired. I guess my limbs are ready for bed but my brain is not. I don’t understand. Can’t the limbs communicate with the brain and send the “ready for sleep” message?

I have been taking melatonin for the last five days. Here’s what I do. I went to bed at 11:30 and try to sleep naturally. If I can’t do that by midnight or ten minutes after midnight, I will get up and take a pill of melatonin 10mg extra strength. Half an hour later, the drowsiness will come and I will fall sleep. In the morning, I still feel a little bit of the after-effect. A little bit of motion and visual impediments is still lingering even though I feel that I’ve already had enough sleep. After 10AM, I will be back to my normal self.

It is said that the incomplete wakefulness is helpful to writing, but I haven’t experienced that so far. Not yet. It is claimed that this is discovered by Freud–in our dream, with our consciousness gone and restrictive social rules not applicable, we behave more naturally and think more naturally. I wish I can write better before 10AM when the remnant of melatonin is still exerting its power over my consciousness. So far it is still in my wish. My writing seems to be impervious to the wonderful opportunity opened up. It’s still as unsatisfactory as before.

Event Before Election

“Have you registered to vote?” The lady behind the thick plate of glass asked.
“No.” I answered.
“Why do you answer for her? I am asking her?” The lady said, pointing to my friend W.
I translated for W and W shook her head. So I said “No” across the glass barrier again.
“Do you want to register to vote?” The lady asked. People could register right here at the DMV when they renew their license.
I translated for W and W shook her head.
“No, she doesn’t want to.” I replied. The lady looked at me and then looked at W, and didn’t say anything, but I could feel her thinly veiled contempt. I felt really hurt. I would feel better if she yelled at W that she’s being irresponsible and it’s her duty to vote. Seriously. I would feel more comfortable if she yelled.
“It’s on Tuesday. She has to work to pay bills. Also New Jersey is not a swing state.” I said, trying in vain to spin this to W’s advantage. The lady wanted to say something, but she stopped herself. Somehow I felt she’s accusing W of something–moral ineptitude or dereliction of duty–in a polite way, and in a righteous way, and I was guilty by association.

Holding her newly renewed license, W smiled happily. For months, DMV was swarmed by endless queues and unimaginable large number of people, which had prevented W getting her renew. She was so worried. If she’s stopped by the police on the highway, she won’t be able to explain her expired license. With her limited English, it’s impossible. Finally, she doesn’t need to worry about it anymore.

“How can I vote? I don’t even know English.” W said to me as we were walking out of the one story building. There are three burly guys wearing jacket with “SECURITY” printed on the back and they were talking about the presidential election. North Jersey, South Jersey and the northwestern part of Jersey can be republican territories, but in our area, the Central Jersey, it’s solid democrat stronghold for as long as anybody can remember.

“You are right. There should be multi-lingual voting booth in New Jersey.” I said. W agreed. We know that’s not going to happen, but it feels good to say it. Now I think of it, it is almost impossible for immigrants to vote if they know limited English. Just think of the ballot, with all the questions and all the candidates. W would have trouble to understand the ballot. She needs to take a class and be tutored before she can exercise her rights and fulfill her duty. I don’t know if there are such classes in those swing states, for example Pennsylvania, but I do believe that there won’t be such classes in a non-swing state like New Jersey.

Probably people would say W should learn English. However that’s not going to happen. She works six days a week from 10AM to 10PM. The one day off is used to run all kinds of errands. When is she ever going to find the time to study English? Well, probably not having time is just a convenient excuse. W is not interested in study. She’s interested in earning money and paying bills and chasing after her dreams. Even if she has time, a very big if that is, she won’t use it on studying.

What Does It Mean?

What does the word “russet” mean? Also words like “orb”, “presage”, “quaff”, “brogue”, “dirigible”, “druid”, “patisserie”? I have no idea. Some of them I’ve already looked up at least several times, but still I forget what the meaning. It must be my disappointing memory, but that’s another story for another day. It sounds rather exhausting for a non-native speaker like me–no matter how many words one learns, there are always more words out there to be learned. I prefer to have a well defined task–a pre-determined amount of words–and once it’s completed, I know every word, but that’s not the case in the world of English, which has an annoying penchant to create new words. For example, russet means “reddish brown”. Can’t you just use reddish brown? No you can’t. You create a new word russet. What’s the point? It’s not like it is a word one uses every day. I mean I can understand the creation of a new word to replace a combo if it is something people use often–saving one’s breath and energy to voice just one word instead of two. If it is rarely used, what’s the point of the economy? It must be for some reasons I don’t know, probably it’s a Latin, an Anglo, a Saxon, a French, or whatever other sources. The ancient English people were eager learners. I wish they were not so industrious.

It was in the later part of the high school when my friends and I suddenly realized the scale and extensiveness of the English vocabulary. Our English classes–the two-hour foreign language each week–were almost peanuts, and couldn’t handle the seemingly limitless permutation of alphabets. Those with good memory instantly embarked on a journey of brute force memorization, but people without a good memory, me for example, could only resort to various techniques, like absurd little stories, image association, grouping, all for the purpose of coaxing the mind to retain something the mind didn’t want to retain.

The habit of looking up something I don’t know continued after high school. The fact that I would forget it five minutes later should have discouraged me, but didn’t, since I harbored the hidden ambition of knowing every word I encounter.

I completely gave it up several years ago. I don’t know the exact reason, but I suspect it was due to my better understanding of slang, which are so … It’s a cliche to say slang is cool, exotic, energetic, earthy. Well, to me slang is something almost revolutionary. Since I learned English as a foreign language in classrooms, and my knowledge of English is rather bookish and pedantic and formal and polite. Slang completely throws my concept of English off balance. The idea of grammar consideration and memorizing a word deliberately sounds ridiculous for slang. It is against the whole spirit of slang.