Monthly Archives: August 2010

On ‘A Couple’ of Something

The recent posts on Language Log concerning the conception of ‘most’, how the value varies from more than half, to a great majority, to the greatest out of any constituent parts has been particularly enlightening. Over the past three weeks, before the posts about ‘most’ started, I have been thinking a fair amount about my own conception of ‘couple’. I’ve always had issue with this word, even since I was young – a ‘couple’, for me, is a little less than a ‘few’, but not necessarily two. A ‘couple’ illuminates that there is more than one object, while a ‘few’ shows that there aren’t many objects. Because of this change of perspective, they have been interchangeable for me.
When I arrived in the UK, I had issues adjusting to using ‘couple’ to mean only two, and no more. It makes sense, etymologically, but it doesn’t mesh with my inner definition. And I suppose that this is the same as ‘most’. What I want to know, although about which I can only speculate, is if this is a result of a divergent definition due to paucity of data – whether the linguistics bottleneck is the only plausible reason for my different and awkward definition of ‘couple’.


The other day, I was conversing with my Colombian brother-in-law, and at one point I said, in reference to the desire to stay in society, “I’m not some remontado, with my eyes on the hills.” (I think we were talking about Into the Wild). He nodded, as if he understood, but confessed upon my asking that he didn’t know what it meant. Wikipedia has this to say on the subject:
remontado n. 1. Re-mounted, gone back to the hills or mountains (said of someone who has returned to the wild and left civilization.) 2. A Northern Philippine’s tribesman.

Now, what is interesting isn’t that Sam didn’t have the word for Northern Phillipine Tribesman in his lexicon, but that he understood from context the first definition, even though he hadn’t run across the word before. What is also interesting is that my own place of acquisition for the word was in a similar environment: “the remontados burning their homes and setting their eyes upon the mountains” (Gene Wolfe, Book of the New Sun, III, chapter 5, pg. 42)

I guess this is just a note on the acquisition of words. (I felt like something should be written on this blog, in other words.)