Wednesday Word: Running with Scissors

This week’s Wednesday Word is actually a whole group of words, the set which linguists (using their technical parlance) call “words which act weird.”

Ordinary nouns have a singular (one parakeet) and a plural form (two parakeets or even a pair of parakeets). Don’t bring up the joke about a “pair of keets,” please.

Many items come in pairs: earrings, shoes, socks, etc. While we would rarely wear only one shoe, we can speak of one shoe or a pair of them.

But a small set of nouns never occurs in the singular: a pair of scissors (you’ve never heard of “one scissor,” have you?); a pair of pants, boxers, shorts, etc.

If a pair of something is two of them, why doesn’t a pair of tweezers come from taking one tweezer and matching it with another tweezer? Have you ever see one pant by itself? Or a single plaid boxer?

If it must be a pair of pants because there are two legs (even if they aren’t each individually called a pant), then why don’t we speak of a pair of shirts? I mean, there are two arms, so what’s the difference?

This just goes to show that words don’t always mean what we think they do, and language is messy. It follows rules and then flouts them and allows for quirky variations.

(check out Chris Levine’s blog Technological Information, where the hilarious “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” image came from!)

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About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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4 Responses to Wednesday Word: Running with Scissors

  1. Mark Stivers says:

    Nice post. Actuallly, on Long Island, New York, there are people who say “a scissor” (or in the local accent “a sizza.”) If I’m imitating a Long Island matron, I would say, “Pass me a sizza.”

    • Bill Davis says:

      Too funny, Mark. Our family has an airport check-in story (in a to-remain-unnamed country) that includes the word “sizzah.” We were told, vociferously, “No sizzah!!” allowed in carry-ons.

  2. Mark Stivers says:

    Also, when I was living on the island of Montserrat, in the Caribbean, I heard people refer to “a pant.” That did sound strange.

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