She sells seashells…

The topic of this tongue twister came up tonight so I thought I’d over-analyze it the way I like to do.

There’s two sides to this business: the consumer and the provider.

Consumer: If I’m walking along the beach, which traditionally has shells strewn about in random fashion, why would I be inclined to buy them from someone nearby? I could simply bend down and pick them up, unless the female entrepreneur that is the protagonist in our tonguetwister has pre-combed the beach of all the choice shells and is purveying only the best ones.

Provider: How does one decide to go down to the beach one day, pick up shells, and proceed to sell them. What’s the markup? Can you register this as a business, incorporate it and expense various things like office space (fold-out poker table), parking at the beach, gas, insurance etc.? How do you take this idea to the bank and get a small business loan?

All this leads me to believe that since the sea shore that is the chosen business location for the purveyance of sea shells DOES NOT have shells naturally deposited there, it’s an importation business! Or, the target demographic are people that don’t like to get wet, sandy, wear bathing suits, are hydrophobic, silicaphobic but still desire the former accommodations of gooey sea creatures.

The proprieter, or employees thereof must really be combing other beaches for good shells, transporting them to a central quality control center, and the qualifying shells packaged and distributed to franchises where the target markets do not reside near seashell laden beaches.

Which leads me to wonder, when I walk along a beach and stoop to pick up a shell, what am I missing out on?

Turns out the Canary Islands are a perfect example: shell harvesters pick the beaches clean and resell these shells by the sea shore. Thus my conclusion is finally reached: the tongue twister was originally sung by a little yellow bird in a cage!

Why do we call it…

a “flight of stairs”? Yes, I said I’d be discussing sweaters next but this one was nagging at me.

The origins of the word, according to Webster’s, are from the word flyht and means “to fly”. While one of the official definitions does include a continuous run of stairs, I’m still not convinced it makes any sense. Flying down stairs sounds dangerous, and not something I’d wish to do however if I put myself into the mindset of flying down the stairs I’d be inclined to believe that I didn’t actually touch any (or many) risers and treads on the way down. As uncomfortable as it sounds, it is quite plausible and happens very frequently, especially with kids seeking a lesson in gravity.

Can one fly UP the stairs? It’s much less plausible to traverse them only hitting one or two along the way unless, of course, your “flight” of stairs is only one or two steps high which then begs the question, “What constitutes an entire flight?” We call one or two or 5 stairs “steps” most commonly, but at some point they cease to be called “steps” and become “stairs”. Like a broken escalator (thanks Mitch!).

Then we have the landing. This makes perfect sense if we only fly down the stairs. We should call the top of the stairs the takeoff point, but we don’t. If we’re going up, then every step is a landing as each tread would be one leg of a fairly long journey. Don’t trip or you may lose your baggage.

Would an escalator be an unending flight of stairs? Does an escalator travelling downward qualify as an escalator? Maybe a descalator, but in my mind an escalator can only go up, so as to “escalate” something. If you wanted to escalate a problem, you would bring it to a higher ranking individual. The same thing goes for elevators. To elevate means to go up, to raise to a higher position. Can we take an elevator down? NO because it wouldn’t be elevating you unless it passed through the centre of the earth where you would start to go up again, but as I type this I reach a quandry: are up and down based on gravity, or bodily attitude? If you travel down to the centre of the earth and pass through it, would you transition from going down to going up? I’m inclined to believe so because no matter where you are, going from the centre to the good side of the crust will always be termed “up”. In outer space, conversely, you can go up but it’s in relation to other objects and your bodily attitude. If I were off the planet but facing it, I could go up and down all I like, my lateral position travelling from one horizon to the other but as soon as I step foot on the surface our definition of up and down changes. Up now becomes “outward from the centre” and down would be “toward the centre”, logically. Odd, but logical.

Anyway back to stairs, I have one last point: stairs consist of at least one stringer, one tread for each step and usually something called a riser. The riser is also a misnomer because it can also function as a faller depending on which direction the individual chooses to operate the stairs. Escalators don’t suffer from this because their direction can usually be changed.

So there. I will call it a flight of stairs, but only under the same definition that applies to a multitude of similar objects travelling together, as in “a flight of aircraft”.

Why do we say…

Ok, so it’s not so much of a “Why do we say” as it is “Why do we call it”. Why do we call the timekeeping device most of us wear on our wrists a watch?

The word “watch” implies the definition, “to look at something for extended periods of time”. While watching a watch enables us to consciously measure extended periods of time, other data gathering sessions from the face with no eyes are quite transient, likely lasting less than a second. Given the fleeting nature of the device’s intended usage we should be referring to these as “looks”, or better yet “glances”.

But we have a problem now: people use the phrase, “I glanced at my watch”. The very statement just seems to be on the cusp of ripping the space-time continuum and it would be safer to say, “I looked at my glance”, or “I spied my look” or something. We’d have to establish the proper name for the watch before we could start using crazy statements juxtaposing different time-denoting verbs.

Given the duration implication of the word “watch”, why aren’t other objects we look at for extended periods of time called watches, or stares, or fixates? Like a TV. Jeez, TV is another blog entirely but let me just say “tele-vision” should really be “tele-show” or “tele-watch”, the vision part is quite local and has nothing to do with teleprojecting. Furthermore, shouldn’t a TV be called a watch? We always say, “I’m watching TV.” We could just say “I’m watching.” because “I’m watching watch” would just be stupid.

What separates a watch from a clock? Does size matter? If a watch is something small, and a clock normally sits on a desk or a wall etc, what do we call a really big freakin’ clock? A clock! Once it ceases to be a watch and becomes a clock, there is no further progression so why then do we rename an object based on it’s size despite it’s identical function? Cars have this problem too, except the inverse: a really small car is still a car, a normal sized car is a car, make it really big and we start calling it a truck despite the function being (somewhat) the same. Make a horse pull it and it ceases to be a car and becomes a carriage.

Our world is full of misnomers. Next up: sweaters.

Why do we say…


This one has a few angles to it, but it occurred to me driving past Gorge Rd. in Moncton tonight.

When water cuts a narrow path through terra firma, a hole in the land, like a canyon is formed and called a gorge. Fine, but why then do we say people “gorge” themselves when in fact a big hole is being filled? When someone is eating to excess, it’s not a pretty thing to watch. Neither is the 10 year result. I’m living proof. But that said, why are the pretty people “gorgeous” when the fat pie-stuffers are not? If anything, members of NAAFP should be called gorgeous, leaving the pretty-folk to be called Mountains.

Why mountains?

Cause it’s always fun mountain a pretty person.

Why do we say…

I decided this morning to add a new series to my posts. Whenever I think of these, I’ll post them. This started 10 some odd years ago when I was working at Pearson Airport; I started analyzing idioms and colloquialisms from a very literal and/or logical sense. I would then turn to one of the guys and ask, “Why do we say…” which could become quite comedic once you’ve hashed out the logic. So I’ll begin my series with this recent one that came up with just such a character from the tower:

Why do we say, “That isn’t half bad”? Traditionally, the statement is used to indicate that something is rather good, or at least better than you expected it to be.

All I can figure is that the statement establishes that something IS NOT half bad, or a variable other than 50% of our subject is good and the remainder is bad. Could be 51/49, could be 70/30 but we don’t know. The statement itself is ambiguous. All we know is that it’s more bad than good, or vice versa. Maybe it’s supposed to mean the “bad” component isn’t half as great as we thought it would be which is encouraging, but still ambiguous. If I thought it was going to be 100% bad, then we can establish it was less than 50% bad by using the latter statement.

If I stated that something IS half bad, we would know the ratio to be 50/50 and we get into the whole “glass half full” philosophy. Everything becomes answerable depending on your perspective.

Instead of ambiguous statements, lets use fully qualified statements so that people aren’t left guessing about what we mean when we’re done talking.