We start learning language from birth when we have an experience and someone gives us a label for it - a word. Our son Tim’s first word was a whispered ‘dark’ because we would take him outside to see the dark and the stars and whisper ‘darrrk’ as we held him close.
Sometimes we learn a new word by receiving a verbal explanation and often by a combination of both methods. Years ago my children tried to explain the meaning of hipster to me (in my teen years it meant bikini briefs or low cut jeans) and I really struggled to understand the type of person they were talking about. In the end one of them found a humorous Youtube clip on the topic and then we went through people we knew, classifying them as hipsters or not. I eventually got the gist.
Sometimes we get it wrong. For a long time I thought the word ‘ubiquitous’ had a negative connotation, that it meant something bad as well as pervasive. I think I was combining ‘ubiquitous’ and ‘iniquitous’.
A while ago my lovely post office owner, whose first language is not English, asked me what is the difference between a cup and a mug. He had spent his whole English-speaking life thinking they were two words that meant exactly the same thing (but if that was so, why would I have used both words in the name of The Cup and Mug). He in fact had always used the word cup for any drinking vessel. I was stumped, although if you’d put an array of cups and mugs in front of me I’m sure I could have divided them quickly into the two camps.
I had to go away and mull this over for days before I could formulate an answer.
I felt pretty silly because although I was positive that I could distinguish between the two without hesitation I’d never consciously thought about it and wondered if I was the only native English speaker who couldn’t immediately articulate the difference.
I tested this out on my husband. After thinking for a short while, he said a cup is used with a saucer and a mug is not. I quickly dismissed this definition as insufficient.
Next port of call - Google. Google was not especially cut and dried either.
Finally I managed to put it into words - a cup is wider than it is high and a mug is higher than it is wide and reported this back to Patrick.
Recently I posted a parcel from another nearby post office where I was served by another person of Chinese background who also asked the same question.
‘Funny you should ask that ..” I grinned, and told him the story.
‘Ah, the fat guy and the skinny guy,’ he chuckled.
The Cup and Mug
The adventures of a small business (more interesting than we would have ever guessed!)