The March column “What’s Behind English Words?” looked back on one of the craziest, complicated languages. Several specific responses attracted my attention. Many quotes are included below. May these informative thoughts add to your curiosity.

Early English started in the fifth century, but today’s version formed during William Shakespeare’s time in the 1600s. It rates among the highest of 6,500 languages around the world with 1.132 billion English speakers, slightly above the next three: Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and Spanish.

English has more than a million words with about a thousand added each year from other languages such as French, Latin, Italian, German, Dutch and Anglo-Saxon. Words often have ongoing changes, but many have become archaic, unused words.

The column included examples of correct grammar that make speeches and writing easier to understand, whereas mistakes make English weaker and uncomfortable. Two examples that tend to distract listeners and readers are commas and pronouns — mistakes I sometimes make.

Betsy Green, a Santa Barbara historian and Edhat columnist, shared: “What I find interesting about English is how much it has changed in just the last 100 years. I have a 1913 dictionary that I use when I run across a strange usage in my research. I once read an article about when the El Encanto Hotel opened. The local paper said that it had ‘tasty’ decor. A century ago, ‘tasty’ only meant ‘having good taste,’ not ‘good to eat.’ By the 1950s, ‘tasty’ meant ‘tasting good.’ And so it goes … .”

Popular, former UCSB research professor of history Hal Drake said, “I had no idea English outranked Chinese in number of speakers. Kathy [his wife] and I were just talking about how crossword puzzle writers exploit words that can be both nouns and verbs, or they are spelled the same but pronounced differently to mean different things.

“A couple examples come to mind: When did ‘waiting in line’ become ‘waiting ON line’? I’ve heard highly educated people say, ‘for all intensive purposes’ instead of ‘for all intents and purposes.’ One I remember was Wisconsin people saying ‘gentles’ for ‘genitals.’”

Writer Linda Stewart-Oaten talked about a French word becoming an English word. “The word ‘curfew’ comes from the French phrase ‘couvre-feu,’ which means ‘cover the fire’ used to describe the time of blowing out all lamps and candles. ‘Curfeu’ was adopted into Middle English and later became the modern ‘curfew.’ The homes in early American colonies had no real fireplaces so a fire was built in the center of the room. To make sure a fire did not get out of control during the night, it was agreed that putting all fires out would then be covered with a clay pot called a ‘curfew.’”

Gerd Jordano, a community activist raised as a child in Sweden, talked about learning English as a teenager. “Pete [husband] and I both loved reading this — notice I did not say Pete and me!! So glad I learned this language at my young age … it is mind-boggling how many words, such as bare and bear, sound exactly alike. [By the way], I have a lot of empathy for people moving to America in their later adult years to learn the English language. Another example of our confusing English language is would and wood.”

Longtime friend Linda Spear from Seattle taught and helped students get into college. “I am always ‘correcting’ people in my mind. I try not to be heavy-handed when offering a ‘correction,’ even when asked to submit one. One of my pet peeves occurs on the golf course. When determining who should putt first, the player asks, ‘Is it me?’ instead of ‘Is it I?’ — to avoid being too pedantic. I just ask, ‘Am I out or are you?’ Some very smart, educated friends butcher the language, but who am I to call her/him on it?!

“I loved teaching grammar, even diagramming sentences, but it’s no longer done in any English curriculum. But I am not sure grammar is emphasized at all. When helping high school students with their college applications and English SAT tests, I was appalled at their lack of correct grammar usage and had to go back to explaining the nominative vs. the objective cases. You should have seen the looks on their faces followed by saying, ‘Never heard of ’em!’”

Bob Bason, community activist, wrote: “Playing with Words — one of my favorite for the impossibility of the English language: the pronunciation of ‘OUGH.’” He then listed the letters and different sounds used.

» UFF — enough, tough, rough, slough (off)

» OH — thorough, dough, though, borough

» OFF — cough, trough

» AW — ought, bought, thought, fought

» OCK — hough (UK), lough (Scottish)

» OW — drought, bough, plough (UK)

» OOH — through, slough (of mud)

» UP — hiccough

Joni Meisel, another community activist and devoted reader, talked about the importance of a grammar book. “I know there’s a reason that Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style’ is in the drawer of my bedside table.”

Perie Longo, former poet laureate, emailed: “No wonder people don’t understand each other very well. Individuals give different meanings to the same words all the time. Connotative definitions supersede denotative ones. For instance, rain can mean a blessing to one and flood to another, something to fear. The emotional meaning we give to a word dictates meaning and our reaction. To me, poetry means emotional connection and fresh language; to another it may mean nonsense.”

Lorna Hedges, life honorary trustee of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, gave thoughts. “I am fascinated with the English language and had a lot of Latin when in high school. It sparked my interest in the roots of words. Punctuation is also a part of our language, certainly in writing but speaking as well. And then there is grammar! During my four Stanford years, we went through the meanings of words turned upside down and around every day, making our language became obscured. Because of my background in Latin, I often finished and came up with the meanings before others.”

Shirley Roby, another big reader, added, “One of my pet peeves is myself. ‘Call Mary or myself.’ Grrrrrr. My other one is lay and lie. ‘I am going to LAY down’ drives me nuts as well. Chickens LAY eggs!”

May English be a rewarding language sharing our lives with others while making our thoughts clear, sociable and rich.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.