Something otterly and perhaps utterly useless

Posted in Unwelcomed notions published for no obvious reason on November 2nd, 2009 by Jeppe Grünberger

Monday was back. This time it didn’t sneak up on me but rather jumped right in my face and started yelling. This has made it very hard for me to focus all day. The constant distractions of Monday are spawning the oddest ideas in my head. To give you an impression of just how bad it is, here is an idea that I actually have taken the time to tell you about.

Today I was chatting with a good friend of mine during my lunch break and one of her many periods during the day where she refuses to do her mindless, soul-annihilating job. We were discussing this quote from How I Met Your Mother:

“When you date someone, you’re taking one long course on who that person is, and when you break up, all of that stuff is useless. It’s the emotional equivalent of an English degree.”

And since she has exactly an English degree, she agreed – declaring her utter uselessness. But in the heat of the moment it came out as “otterly useless”, which I felt sure was not exactly correct. Awed by the power of her English degree, though, I thought I had better look it up before pointing the error out to her. A quick googling revealed that the word otterly actually does exist, though it means something different altogether. At least at first inspection.

The word otterly means, of course, exactly the same as humanly – just relative to an otter rather than a human. So things that can be humanly possible, can also be otterly possible or not. For example swimming seems to be otterly possible, while space travel is less so. At the moment at least – you never know. But the misunderstanding started with the phonetic similarity between utterly useless and otterly useless, and that got us thinking about what otterly useless actually means. My friend had said something that wasn’t actually incorrect, but what had she said then?  What did it mean?

Otterly useless must be something that is useless to an otter and as it turns out, if you think about it, almost anything apart from fish and water would be considered otterly useless. What, for example, would an otter do with an iPhone? See? Good. But wait, there’s more!

So, what then is the difference actually between the expressions “utterly useless” and “otterly useless”? Utterly useless is defined by Webster’s to be complete uselessness, but since (as we have just agreed – yes you did, I was there) anything apart from water and fish and perhaps a few other things found in nature would also be considered otterly useless, what is the actual difference? If I said that a thing was utterly useless, it would almost always also be otterly useless – unless I was talking about water and fish, and then I would by all rights be flat wrong in any case. So, as it turns out the sentence “otterly useless” is not only correct in itself, but is also pretty spot on in actuality when used to describe the use of anything also considered utterly useless.

Of course, there are certain drawbacks to using otterly instead of utterly. People may wonder why you are being so specifically otter-related in your assessments of things, but as long as you just say the word without spelling it out to them, you should be okay. Only you will know that you are actually talking about the uses related specifically to an otter and not everything else. It may also make the conversation a lot more entertaining to you than to anyone else involved in it, and it doesn’t seem to lead to any obvious misunderstandings.

So, that was a thought from this Monday for you. And it is very obviously otterly useless, I am yet to decide if it is also utterly useless.

An otter, obviously

An otter, obviously