A haircut?

The hedge needs a haircut.

As far as correct English is concerned this sentence ‘The hedge needs a haircut.’ although grammatically correct, does not make sense. Hedges grow leaves and twigs rather than hair, yet when I said it to my husband on Sunday morning he understood and replied ‘O.K. I’ll do it tomorrow.’, and a few minutes ago he came in and announced, ’I’ve done the hedge", and the fact is, even if he had said ‘I’ve given the hedge a haircut’, we would both have understood exactly what he meant.

A few years ago I had encephalitis, which, among other things, had a devastating effect upon my spoken language. The children got quite used to me asking them such things as ‘Have you fed the giraffe?’ when I meant ‘Have you fed the guinea pig?’ After all they are both mammals, and their names begin with G, so it was pretty close, at least for me. They would just reply ‘Yes’ or No’ or simply disappear to get the job done.

It was mainly nouns with which I had difficulty, especially names. Try having a family gathering and being unable to address anyone by name! And that was with people who knew the difficulties I was having It has been a long haul back to normality, and problems these days only occur when I’m very tired. I gradually learnt tricks which enabled me to cope, such as thinking in my relatively limited French and then translating before speaking. I apparently store foreign nouns in a different part of my brain to English ones and this part was undamaged by the illness.

Even without having had such a horrid condition, we all use language in somewhat ambiguous ways. When I asked the children ‘Have you fed the guinea pig/giraffe?’, what I was actually saying was ‘I know you haven’t fed the guinea pig. He is yours, and is not my responsibility, but he does need looking after, so please go and do it now.’ The sentence I did use avoids the confrontational accusation ‘You haven’t done what you should have done!. It is a softer approach which doesn’t cause people to get annoyed, but does get the work done.

Perhaps when I said ‘The hedge needs a haircut.’, I was really saying ‘It’s your responsibility. Get it done," but to be honest it is just as likely to be me who does it, so in this case it was just a jokey way of saying something and perhaps dropping a hint. If my husband hadn’t followed up it might well have been me spending half an hour out there.

English is however a very ambiguous, and therefore sometimes confusing language. I recently met a great niece of mine for the first time.  She is a young adult, and a pleasant young woman, but very precise and with no apparent sense of humour. If I had mentioned to her anything about hedges needing haircut I would have had a lecture about anthropomorphism ( giving human qualities to non –human things or beings) or perhaps a quotation from a biology text book.

Would she understand jokes such as ‘If a vegetarian eats vegetables what does a humanitarian eat?’, or understand that a boxing ring is actually square. You’d have to go back into history when bare knuckle fight fought within a circle ( a ring) of onlookers. When boxing became more organised and controlled in the 19th century it presumably was easier to construct square ‘rings’ rather than round ones. Most people just accept these things, but not this girl. Does she know there is no ham, or any other part of a pig, in a hamburger, that French fires aren’t French. Does she understand that when stars are out they are visible, but that if they go out they are invisible?

There are also lots of homonyms in English, partly because it is a mongrel language which has taken in words from lots of different sources.

If you wind bandages around a wound for instance, when completed you will have wound the bandages around the wound.
If you are sailing and the wind gets up, it might be that the wind becomes too strong to safely wind down the sails.
If your daughter falls down while wearing her favourite dress, does she shed a tear when she sees the resultant tear?

If you find examples like these confusing it is hardly surprising. And these are only a few examples. I suggest you try reading them aloud , or if that doesn’t help get an English speaker to do so. The two words should sound different. 

For those who are interested the wound that is an injury comes from an Indo –European root which means a swelling. Wound as in twisting round comes from a Germanic word meaning to twist or turn.

Wind , as in blown air, comes from Middle English or Norse. To wind comes from Old English and means to wrap around a central object or to follow a curving course.
A tear as in the secretion from Old Norse and perhaps Greek. Tear as in rip means to pull part or disrupt or separate and comes from Old English.

Those are the explanations, but besides being interesting, does it help to know where a word comes from, and why it sounds different, or does it simply add to the confusion? Perhaps next time I’ll just say ‘the hedge needs cutting.’