Sunday, June 29, 2008

Admiring a Near Miss

There are a lot of people that I admire. Among the living, I admire Nelson Mandela. I admire Salman Rushdie. I admire the poet Diane Ackerman. But the people that I admire above all others are...

...those who master English as a second language.

What inspired me to blog about this, you ask? Well, to be truthful, it was the recent death of another person I admired: George Carlin. I've been remembering bits and pieces of his comedy that I've heard over my life, and in particular the "near miss" routine. It went something like this (my paraphrasing from memory):
Why is it, when two planes almost collide, they call it a "near miss"? It's not a near miss, it's a near hit. When the planes actually collide, that's a near miss. {Looking up} BOOM! Whoa! They nearly missed.
Carlin, of course, was trying to be funny. That was, after all, his job. But if you dig under the humor there's an interesting observation:

What underlies Carlin's routine is the fact that miss is both a noun ("a failure to hit, succeed, or find") and a verb ("to fail to hit or strike"). (Don't glaze over on me -- I'm going somewhere with this.) When the word near modifies miss-the-verb, it's an adverb, and means they almost missed, but didn't -- in other words, a hit. It's a little clearer if you use the more common form of the adverb: "It was nearly a miss" (not to be confused with "nearly amiss," which means something completely different).

But when near modifies miss-the-noun, it means there was a miss (that's what the noun means), and near is qualifying the nature of the miss, as in:

"They missed."
"By how much?"
"Not much -- they were pretty near."

So we have a single word, miss, which is both a noun and a verb, qualified by a single word, near, but the phrase near miss has two completely opposite meanings depending on whether you intend to use miss-the-noun or miss-the-verb. Near miss-the-verb means a hit, while near miss-the-noun means a non-hit.

Is that crazy, or what?

Of course we who have been learning English from infancy know that near miss means use-the-noun, but how confusing must these twists and turns be for people who learn it as a second language? Am I'm not even going to talk about individual words that are their own opposites -- called contronyms -- such as fast, left (does "He's left" mean "He's gone" or "He's still here"?), and sanction.

It's incomprehensible to me that someone could master, as an adult, our incredibly rich language with its incredibly nonsensical rules, cobbled together over centuries from bits and pieces of other languages, each contributing a little grammar here, a little usage there; and also modified in countless irrational ways by centuries of speakers and writers, each of whom felt that God blessed him or her alone with a special right to alter the mother tongue according to his or her judgment, some of whom had to be inebriated.

So to those of you who master English as a second language, I admire you, one and all.

There are some who deserve special admiration. I already knew, when I first read Lolita, years (okay, decades) ago that English was a second language to Vladimir Nabakov, the Russian refugee. And so, knowing this, I was completely and utterly stunned when I opened the book to page one and read the very first paragraph:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
That isn't a paragraph. It's a poem.

And then, of course, there's Joseph Conrad... let's not get me started.

So if you (like me) admire (or at least love) our marvelous language, then the next time you're at a baseball game, whether major league or little league, and a batter makes a good, solid connection with the ball, and it scoots past the shortstop or drops into the outfield, turn to your companion -- or better yet, the person in the next seat who you don't know, and who, even better yet, may be a person trying to learn English as a second language -- and say:

"That was a great near miss."

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