How can it be easier to assent than to dissent but harder to ascend than to descend? Why is it that if you decide to be bad forever, you choose to be bad for good; or that if you choose to wear only your left shoe, then you left on is right and your right one is left? Right?

Small wonder that English users are constantly standing meaning on its head. Let’s look at a number of familiar English words and phrases that turn out to mean the opposite or something very different from what we think they mean:

  • A waiter. Why do they call those food servers waiters, when it’s the customers who do the waiting?
  • A non-stop flight. Never get on one of these. You’ll never get down.
  • A near miss. near miss is, in reality, a collision. A close call is actually a near hit.
  • My idea fell between the cracks. If something fell between the cracks, didn’t it land smack on the planks or concrete? Shouldn’t that be my idea fell into the cracks ( or between the boards)?
  • A hot water heater. Who heats hot water? This is similar to garbage disposal. Actually, the stuff isn’t garbage until after you dispose it.
  • A hot cup of coffee. Here again the English language gets us in hot water. Who cares if the cup is hot? Surely we mean a cup of hot coffee.
  • I want to have my cake and eat it too. Shouldn’t this timeworn cliche’ be I want to eat my cake and have it too? Isn’t the logical sequence that one hopes to eat the cake and then still posses it?
  • A one night stand. So who’s standing? Similarly, to sleep with someone. Who’s sleeping?
  • It’s neither here nor there. Then where is it?
  • Extraordinary. If extra-fine means “even finer than fine” and extra large  “even larger than large,” why doesn’t extraordinary mean “even more ordinary than ordinary”?
  • The first century B.C. These hundred years occurred much longer ago than people imagined. What we call the first century B.C. was, in fact the last century B.C.
  • Daylight saving time. Not a single second of daylight is saved by this ploy.
  • The announcement was made by a nameless official. Just about everyone has a name, even officials. Surely what is meant is “The announcement was made by an unnamed official.”
  • Preplan, preboard, preheat and  prerecord. Aren’t people who do this simply planning, boarding, heating and recording? Who needs the pretentious prefix? I have even seen shows “prerecorded before a live audience,” certainly preferable to prerecording before a dead audience.
  • The bus goes back and forth between the terminal and the airport. Again we find mass confusion about the order of events. You have to go forth before you can go back.
  • I got caught in one the biggest traffic bottlenecks of the year. The bigger the bottleneck, the more freely the contents of the bottle flow through it. To be true to the metaphor, we should say, I got caught in one of the smallest traffic bottlenecks of the year.
  • Underwater and underground. Things that we claim are underwater and underground are obviously surrounded by, not under the water and ground.
  • I lucked out. To luck out sounds as if you’re out of luck. Don’t you mean I lucked in?
  • Watch your head. I keep seeing this sign on low doorways, but I haven’t figured out how to follow the instructions. Trying to watch your head is like trying to bite your teeth.
  • They’re head over heels in love. That’s nice, but all of us do almost everything head over heels. If we are trying to create an image of people doing cartwheels and somersaults, why don’t we say, They’re heels over head in love?
  • Put your best foot forward. Now let’s see…We have a good foot and a better foot- but we don’t have a third- and best -foot. It’s our better foot we want to put forward. This grammar atrocity is akin to May the best team win.  Usually there are only two teams in the contest. Similarly, in any list of bestsellers only the most popular book is genuinely a bestseller. All the rest are bettersellers.
  • Keep a stiff upper lip. When we are disappointed or afraid, which lip do we try to control? The lower lip, of course, is the one we are trying to keep from quivering.
  • I’m speaking tongue in check. So how can anyone understand you?
  • Skinny. If fatty means “full of fat,” shouldn’t skinny mean “full of skin”?