Ambiguity and American English


WC doesn’t envy anyone who attempts English as a second language.  The language is riddled with euphemisms, words with multiple meanings and contextual defined term. As just one example, let’s use a term WC blogged about recently, “yard birds.”

WC meant bird species seen in his yard. But “yard birds” has other meanings. There’s the 1960’s English rock band, The Yardbirds, which at various times included three of rock’s most famous guitarists, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.

The Yardbirds 1965 Album Cover, Rave Up"

The Yardbirds 1965 Album Cover, Rave Up” So young.

If you are fan of rock and roll music, it’s pretty important. Depending on which band member you talk to and when, the name came from an expression for hobos hanging around rail yards or prisoners hanging around a prison yard or a reference to seminal jazz saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker.

Prisoners are another meaning, especially prisoners out in a prison yard. Why, that might include folks like these.

Potential yard birds, using another definition

Potential yard birds, using another definition

WC is unsure if orange is still the new black, but at least on Donald it matches his unnatural color palette pretty well. Anyway, another definition of yard bird.

One of the greatest saxophonists that ever lived was Yardbird, Charlie Parker, Jr. The father of bebop, an absolutely astonishing virtuoso, he died far too young, but has had immense influence on music, far beyond jazz itself.

Charlie Parker in the Three Deuces of New York (N.Y.), in August 1947

Charlie Parker in the Three Deuces of New York (N.Y.), in August 1947

And then there’s the definition that WC uses most often, the one this started with, birds in your back yard.

Great Horned Owl, Interior Alaska

Great Horned Owl, Interior Alaska

All perfectly legitimate, but wildly different, instances of the same word.

WC spent most of his life as a lawyer, which mostly involves trying to express yourself as clearly and precisely as possible. That’s harder than you might think.

Ask any yard bird.

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2 thoughts on “Ambiguity and American English

  1. One of my go-to coping skills in times of stress is to find the most accurate word for my emotional state. (E.g. Am I more despondent, depressed or despairing and why?)

    Also, in studying sign language I learned that English has more words than any other language IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD (not to be confused with characters in Chinese or Egyptian hieroglyphs which is a different concept). And that’s before you add in multiple meanings, conceptual differences and idiom/slang. How it is possible that other languages still have words with no literal English translation I don’t quite comprehend but it’s true (e.g. “Han” in Korean or “schadenfreude” in German).

    I like this topic… Thanks!

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