Blog Excerpts

Pete Seeger Knew That English is Crazy

The great folk-music pioneer Pete Seeger died on Monday at the age of 94. He's best known for such classics as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," "If I Had a Hammer," and "Turn, Turn, Turn!" But we're particularly fond of a song that he performed about the irrationality of the English language, "English is Cuh-Ray-Zee."

The song was originally written by Josh White, Jr., who in turn was inspired by Richard Lederer's essay "English is a Crazy Language," the first chapter of his book Crazy English.

Here is Seeger performing the song in 2006 at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C.:

And here are the complete lyrics, from Seeger's website:

ENGLISH IS CUH-RAY-ZEE

English is the most widely spoken language in the history of the planet.
One out of every seven human beings can speak or read it.
Half the world's books, 3/4 of the international mail are in English.
It has the largest vocabulary, perhaps two million words,
And a noble body of literature. But face it:
English is cuh-ray-zee!

Just a few examples: There's no egg in eggplant, no pine or apple in pineapple.
Quicksand works slowly; boxing rings are square.
A writer writes, but do fingers fing?
Hammers don't ham, grocers don't groce. Haberdashers don't haberdash.
English is cuh-ray-zee!

If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn't the plural of booth be beeth?
It's one goose, two geese. Why not one moose, two meese?
If it's one index, two indices; why not one Kleenex,two Kleenices?
English is cuh-ray-zee!

You can comb through the annals of history, but not just one annal.
You can make amends, but not just one amend.
If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one, is it an odd or an end?
If the teacher taught, why isn't it true that a preacher praught?
If you wrote a letter, did you also bote your tongue?
And if a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
English is cuh-ray-zee!

Why is it that night falls but never breaks and day breaks but never falls?
In what other language do people drive on the parkway and park on the driveway?
Ship by truck but send cargo by ship? Recite at a play but play at a recital?
Have noses that run and feet that smell?
English is cuh-ray-zee!

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same
When a wise man and a wise guy are very different?
To overlook something and to oversee something are very different,
But quite a lot and quite a few are the same.
How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell the next?
English is cuh-ray-zee!

You have to marvel at the lunacy of a language in which your house can burn down
While it is burning up. You fill out a form by filling it in.
In which your alarm clock goes off by going on.
If pro is the opposite of con, what is the opposite of progress?

Well, English was invented by people, not computers
And reflects the creativity of the human race.
So that's why when the stars are out, they're visible,
But when the lights are out, they're invisible.
When I wind up my watch I start it, but when I wind up this rap,
I end it. English is cuh-ray-zee!

Words by Josh White, Jr. and Pete Seeger
(Based on Richard Lederer's "Crazy English")
Copyright (c) 1996

To brush up on some vocabulary from Seeger's songbook (including the song above), check out the list we've created here.


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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 29th, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Craig J. (Mundelein, IL)
Thanks, great fun.
Friday January 31st, 3:38 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Seeger's song, and Lederer's book, are full of fun, but - more importantly - celebrate the differences, illogical occurrences and downright bizarreness of the language. For many (including me) this daftness simply adds to the richness of enjoyment of the language, but for some foreign learners (especially those whose mother tongues seem to have 'exceptions' to grammatical rules that can be written on the palm of your non-dominant hand) it is a constant source of confusion, or irritation. Personally, I think it is one reason why Anglo-Saxon humour stands out from the rest! And that's before we talk about spelling ...
Friday January 31st, 5:49 PM
Comment by: Read H. (NY)
Very interesting. I did not know that!
Tuesday February 4th, 12:33 AM
Comment by: YOUNG H. (AK)
Isn't English spoken by "Barbarian" in the beginning?. No?.
Saturday February 8th, 3:34 PM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
Check out the book English Isn't Crazy by Marcia Henry -- You'll have to search to find it. If you enjoy language, you will enjoy the historical information about the morphology and the SPELLING of English. I find it is very useful and interesting to English Language Learners, even quite young ones. We all like to know that there IS a rhyme and a reason.
Saturday February 8th, 3:35 PM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
Pete liked it, too!

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