07 December 2010

Get Your Wool Off

 Well, I goofed.  I had this post all set to go in May and never hit "Publish"!  So here's a little springtime for you, now that the Northern Hemisphere is plunging toward winter.  Enjoy.

'Tis shearing season again--yippee, yahooie!

While I respect the option of not getting excited by this news, I can't say I'll ever understand it. The multi-sensory pleasures of sheep, goat, llama, rabbit and alpaca coats (especially once the animals have given them up) utterly make me swoon.

And I am not alone. Remember my friend Kristen who won the Goat Giveaway? Well, last weekend her goats had their first shearing since they've been in Vermont and I was on hand to photograph the momentous occasion. You can view a bunch of the more downright upright photos on Kristen's blog, Gilead Goats. I, however, am about to reveal the dark underbelly of fiber fanaticism.

I wish I could say we spent the entire weekend huffing mohair, but there was a lot of hard work involved too. After trimming her goats' hooves, applying insecticide, and moving them to a new pasture, Kristen received her first shearing lessons from the kind neighbor who had sheared her goats.  As a former small animal veterinary technician, I understand the challenge of convincing creatures to let you do strange things to them with electric equipment.  The thrills and perils are multiplied when the animal weighs 175 pounds, but Kristen was awesome and threw herself right into it.

By the end of the day she was flipping those sheep around like they were beer caps. (Apparently, she could barely move her left arm for a few days after, but it was worth it.)

I will leave you with this image of head down into happiness.

Some of you are very jealous right now. You know who you are.

30 April 2010

Calling All Anglophiles and Linguists

Ever catch yourself wondering what is the sound of one word meaning two utterly opposite things? Well, I have your answer: it's [chuhft].

Having listened to a possibly inordinate amount of Harry Potter on audio, I occasionally find short British phrases running around loose, managing mischief in my head. Today for instance, I was writing an email when I heard the words dead chuffed ringing through my cranium. So I dutifully transcribed them into my message.

I was about to hit SEND, when something made me pause. Delightful as it is, I don't generally use British English, and I didn't actually know what chuffed meant. How stupid would I feel if I threw such an idiomatic word into my email only to have it turn out to be something completely other than what I assumed? You know, A-S-S-U-M-E: making an ass out of you and me. (Though in this case it would be me alone.)

So I did the right thing. I looked it up.

1. chuffed [chuhft]

–adjective British Informal.
delighted; pleased; satisfied.

2. chuffed [chuhft]

–adjective British Informal.
annoyed; displeased; disgruntled.


I don't know how to deal with this. Would I be telling my email recipient that I was pleased by what he had written me or annoyed? Or both? Is that how chuffed works-- a super-sneaky way of layering one's speech with conflicting textures and meta-messages? The ultimate in passive-aggressive power words?

Maybe chuffed requires a modifier so that the listener gets a clue how to interpret it. So one automatically knows that dead chuffed means truly delighted because the word dead carries such a strong connotation of happiness?

Despite the fact that I have been fluent in English for many years and that I probably should have learned this in 7th grade grammar, I have discovered that there are dozens of words like this in common English parlance. They are known, variously, as auto-antonyms, contronyms and, my favorite, antagonyms. (Words that antagonize themselves? Or words that antagonize the reader?)

Many auto-antonyms are so common that I have never noticed their inherent contradictions and use them with reckless abandon. Their definitions sometimes depend on one's position in time or in a transaction. To lease is to rent, either from someone or to someone. The wind came before the rain (in the past), but the lightening is still before us (in the future). Simple enough.

Other contronyms are also readily understood via context. Aloha can signify both hello and goodbye, but no one shouts hello! as they are taking their leave. (Except my old friend Eddie, but he enjoyed being a smartass twerp and we all knew that.) Likewise, when someone seeds a lemon, I never think they are planting something in it.

But several antagonyms are contrary enough to give chuffed a run for its money. Wikipedia claims that dollop "can mean 'a large amount' or 'a small amount' depending on its usage." Adumbrate signifies "to disclose" as well as "to obscure". And then there is pitted, which means both to have a pit and to be without one. (No wonder I have never understood fruit.)

Not til chuffed came along did I recognize this linguistic pitfall for the wide and deep hole it is.

So if you have a favorite auto-antonym, please leave it in the Comments. But more importantly, if you can share any guidance on using chuffed with style, grace and clarity, I'd be ever so...chuffed.