Anyone who writes fairly regularly develops certain habits. Repeated words, expressions, stylistic tricks. I’ve noticed that as I write, there are certain things I keep doing. Like using of course a lot, for example.
It’s a useful phrase, of course. It’s a simple way to introduce a new point or paragraph. And of course, it’s a nice way to avoid being patronizing if you think your readers might already know what you’re about to say (of course, you probably already know this…).
It’s a bit odd though (I say that a lot too) when you look at the phrase. Of. Course. Why do those two words work together?
Of course, I looked at the word course before, and how it’s related to the concept of running. That doesn’t help us to explain the meaning of of course though. It turns out that of course is short for in the ordinary course of things. Which makes perfect sense. We can trace course in that sense without too much difficulty back to the Latin currere. And it also makes sense that we’d abbreviate such a long phrase.
It’s a little strange though isn’t it, that we use it so commonly, when it’s short for a phrase that most of us would never use in ordinary speech. Could you imagine saying in the ordinary course of things? Of course you couldn’t, because you wouldn’t. Use it.
But of course you’d have no problem using of course, without ever thinking about how logical or otherwise putting those two words together might seem. I’d never thought about it until yesterday, and I think about everything. But considering how language is acquired, it’s actually not too unusual.
We might think that language is all about knowing the meanings of words, and then using those words with those meanings. But, with our native tongues, it doesn’t really work like that. We hear words and phrases used in particular contexts, at first by our parents, unconsciously notice their meaning from these contexts, and then soon start using those words and phrases ourselves. We learn the general meanings of words this way, but we also learn to use the words with somewhat different meanings, without really noticing these differences. Which is why we can use of course without ever considering how different it is from how we might usually use the word course.
Of course this is a process we don’t notice, but learning a second language can help us become more aware of it. The French and Italian translations of of course, for example, are bien sûr and certo, respectively. From the perspectives of each language, they’re pretty literal and superficially logical, so I’ve never had any difficulty remembering them. But take anyway. In English, if you break it up into any and way, it still kind of makes sense. This way or that way, it doesn’t matter. But in French, it’s (usually) quand même (in Italian, I think, it depends. I’m currently figuring that out, and it’s made me realise even more how multi-purpose anyway in English really is!). Quand on its own means when, and même can mean either even or the same. So for me, there was no obvious logic behind quand même meaning anyway, and it took me a little while to remember it. Mostly through hearing and seeing it being used, just as I acquired English as a child.
But a French speaker uses quand même all the time without ever finding it weird (unless there’s someone out there writing Les Pensées du français: and yes, français probably should be capitalised as it’s part of a title, but French doesn’t capitalise languages, so… I don’t know).
It’s incredible, isn’t it, how we acquire so much knowledge without even trying? A language isn’t just a collection of words. It’s a system of interconnecting patterns of meaning and often contradictory subsystems of logic that we effortlessly understand without ever consciously being aware that we understand them.
Of course, you probably already knew that!