In the car with three small children, headed for Storybook Island on a sunny afternoon, I had a moment of grandmotherly concern. “I need to stop and double-check that we have sunscreen,” I told the kids as I pulled over. I looked in the bag; the sunscreen was there; I resumed driving.
After a thoughtful pause, the not-quite-four-year-old piped up from the back seat. “Aren’t you going to double-check?”
“I did,” I told her. “I looked, and I found the sunscreen.”
“But doesn’t ‘double-check’ mean you look twice?”
Well, duh. Of course it does. Or at least it should, if you pay literal attention to the word instead of the way we use it. I didn’t really double-check; I only single-checked. It takes a clever grandchild (no bragging involved, of course) to notice that.
Which leads a reasonably clever grandmother to start thinking about some of the other words we use without paying much attention to their literal meaning.
When we turn on a computer and wait with eye-rolling patience while it loads all its drivers and programs and thinks deep thoughts about how to make our lives difficult today—why do we call that “booting” the computer? “Booting” might more accurately describe something the average user is tempted to do 17.3 times per day, which is kicking said computer right smack off the desk and into the trash can.
Why is a pair of pants a single item of clothing, when pairs of shoes, socks, and gloves are all two separate pieces? True, there’s that whole “two legs” thing, but a shirt has two sleeves and we don’t call it a pair. Besides, if we start considering labeling things based on the number of appendages they cover, then strictly speaking those things we put on our hands should be a “ten” of gloves.
And when you get ready for the day, even if you put on a pair of pants, why is it called getting “dressed”?
If a bush pilot brings a small plane down on a lake, why is that “landing” and not “watering”?
Why is the person who “chairs” a meeting so often standing up?
I’m sure there are more, but my brain is beginning to hurt so I’ll leave you to come up with your own. Just one suggestion: Before you get too casual with the English language in front of small children, you might want to consider the words you use. Stop and double—er, single-check the literal meaning first. Just in case you have to explain it.
Ginny and I enjoy your columns. Thank you
I think I’ll start calling my shirts a “pair of sleeves” now.
Children take the time to think about things that adults often overlook.