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.

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.