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Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language

3.81  ·  Rating Details ·  443 Ratings  ·  90 Reviews
Do you cringe when a talking head pronounces “niche” as NITCH? Do you get bent out of shape when your teenager begins a sentence with “and,” or says “octopuses” instead of “octopi”? Do you think British spellings are more “civilised” than the American versions? Would you bet the bank that “jeep” got its start as a military term and “SOS” as an acronym for “Save Our Ship”? ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published May 5th 2009 by Random House (first published January 1st 2009)
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Jun 12, 2010 Chris rated it it was amazing
I, for obvious reasons, have a great affection for the English Language. It's a rich and exciting tongue, with a history as tangled and strange as they come. Over the last millennium or so, the language has gone through so many shifts and changes that people spend entire lifetimes trying to figure it out. Once they do, more often than not, they find that what once was true about their beloved mother tongue just doesn't hold up today.

So there's a choice to be made by lovers of language: deal with
May 26, 2012 Thomas rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
An interesting book about word origins and the validity of certain grammatical rules and constructions. While in the main I enjoyed Origins of the Specious, there are two things that restrain it from receiving a higher rating: some parts simply failed to keep my attention, and I felt that the author did not put forth an actual thesis. I agreed with her position that words should be used as contemporary society deems them to be used as long as the individuals that inhabit society can understand a ...more
Clif Hostetler
The English language is a slippery chameleon; it won't stop changing. As with any human activity subject to change, there are the conservatives, the liberals and the oblivious people. Into this fray the husband wife team of Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman have authored this book to make fun of the snobbish scholars who insist that English follow false rules. But they don't throw out all the rules.

This book includes humorous quips and puns to keep the reader smiling. The authors seem t
Mar 26, 2011 Jigsaw rated it it was ok
"Origins" starts off as a relatively interesting deconstruction of English grammar myths, but quickly turns into a faux-etymological dictionary only to return to grammatical curiosities in the final chapters. As a person interested in linguistics, I tend to fall in the descriptivist camp when it comes to usage--as long as something is understood and accords with what sounds right to the speaker and listener, it is, by definition, good English. The author agrees with this at least. The problem wi ...more
Apr 03, 2011 Smellsofbikes rated it it was amazing
Superb book about grammar, etymology, and usage, concentrating mostly on usages that aren't as wrong as many amateur language authorities think. Now I have the confidence to bravely split my infinitives and I know that ending sentences in prepositions is where it's at. AND I can even safely start sentences with conjunctions, because, as she points out, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens all did it, too, and if it's been in the language, as common usage, for 200 years, it has squatter's rights. She ...more
Aug 03, 2012 Sandy rated it it was amazing
Origins of the Specious, Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, by former New York Times editors Patricia T. O'Conner (Woe Is I) and Stewart Kellerman is as entertaining as it is enlightening. I learned plenty after a day on the beach with this gem. Logophiles O'Conner and Kellerman explore the myths that surround language and rules.

Read this book, and you'll learn that the auction block and the auctioneer's block have their roots in slavery (this is where human beings were sold as if
***Dave Hill
Jan 30, 2015 ***Dave Hill rated it really liked it
Shelves: text, non-fiction
This is a greatly entertaining look at the foibles and follies of the English language and its users, in mostly bite-sized chunks for easy reading. The general themes include:

1. A bunch of folk in the 19th Century really screwed English up, tweaking spellings and grammar and "rules" to make it more like Latin, thus classier.

2. A lot of cases today of people saying "That's not proper English! That's not how that's spelled! That's not how that's pronounced! That's not how that's used!" date from
Evanston Public  Library
Do you throw down your gauntlet? Or is that gantlet? Which one do you run? And, is your forté (pronounced FOR-tay) gourmet cooking or playing the flugelhorn? Wait—should I have said forte (pronounced fort)? If you’re curious about which usages and pronunciations are correct, and if you’ve wondered why there is so much confusion, Patricia O’Conner and her co-author Stewart Kellerman are here to set the record straight on these and many other language conundrums. Their lively book is a wonderful t ...more
May 23, 2010 Ross rated it liked it
Origins of the Specious is a mildly entertaining mix of descriptivism and prescriptivism. There's a lot of good information to be had, written in a rather witty and pun-laden style, but O'Conner has this rather annoying habit of ending almost every section with, "Although I've just given you lots of information about why it's okay to use this word in a way that the 'purists' deride, you still should avoid doing so because you might offend those purists."

And then there's the final chapter, where
Jul 19, 2009 Diana rated it really liked it
Well, this is the first book I've finished since I graduated from BC, but that says way more about me and the summer I'm having than about the book. I thought the book was very fun, and I learned a lot about how and why our usage rules have changed (I particularly liked learning more about how some of what people believe to be bad grammar and usage these days was perfectly acceptable just a few centuries ago). I also appreciated the author's attitude toward the topic--grammar and usage shouldn't ...more
May 31, 2009 Derek rated it it was amazing
This is a humorous debunking of misconceptions about the English language. “Prince Charles’ mom may be queen of England, but he has a lot to learn about the Queen’s English,” quip the authors as they deal with the false notion that American English is some sort of backwoods dialect of the real thing. In fact, American English often preserves forms that have gone out of vogue in the old country. The authors go on to deal with usage, grammar, semantics, and etymologies, drawing on the citations in ...more
Jun 29, 2016 Paul rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is like a digest of the Oxford English Dictionary, which makes it valuable on that basis alone. The author uses lots of corny puns, but provides sound, well-researched definitions.

The only major drawback to reading this book is that it's like reading a dictionary. You really have to stop every so often and read it in chunks because there's no story line, and reading dictionaries is really only entertaining and interesting when it's done in small increments.
Feb 26, 2014 Timothy rated it really liked it
I love books like this, but maybe that's because I'm a bit of an irritating pedant. But this was very informative and very funny. The format is just a series of anecdotes about the English language and various misconceptions about it. Some of which I was corrected on, some I already knew, and many I had never even heard to begin with. If you like this, then 'The Mother Tongue' by Bill Bryson is a must read.
Amanda Ogle
Apr 04, 2014 Amanda Ogle rated it really liked it
This book is really helpful in teaching about the English language. It debunks lots of myths and misconceptions about the English language, as well as explains where we got our words and phrases that can be troublesome. This book helped me to realize that I have been using many words incorrectly, which I appreciate. Every editor or aspiring writer should read this book.
Nov 10, 2009 Katie rated it really liked it
Great book about language myths and assumptions, etymology, etc. Lots of rules I swore by that I've now discovered are completely unfounded, and I love my grammar. A must-read for all language/grammar sticklers.
Jun 29, 2010 Julie rated it really liked it
I enjoyed learning where different words and phrases came from and how some of the grammar rules I've worked so hard to follow do not really apply anymore or are not hard and fast rules. My only complaint it that it ruined the British accent for me.
Dec 04, 2015 Cris rated it liked it
I am interested in words and etymology, but there has to be a hint of a connecting thread for a book about words to become more than a glorified dictionary. This at times read like a dictionary. It lost my attention. I struggled to finish it.
Dec 02, 2009 Sylvia rated it liked it
Recommends it for: word nerds
Recommended to Sylvia by:
Shelves: language
"You're not going to like this one. The only time I get hissed or booed in public is when I talk about the origin of the expression "no room to swing a cat."
Genine Franklin-Clark
Oct 16, 2016 Genine Franklin-Clark rated it really liked it
I love books about words, language, grammar, so I loved this book. It made me rethink my stony reluctance to accept new usage (despite my pitiful efforts to seem open-minded by exclaiming about how fascinating it is to watch my mother tongue changing before my eyes.) I confess it IS fascinating watching this process, but quite painful for me. The tendency to insert "potential" whereever possible. the misuse of "multiple" (what is meant is usually "many" or "several"). beginning every sentence wi ...more
Sep 04, 2016 Nolan rated it really liked it
Shelves: nls-audio
Every page has something worthy of recommending to others. I’m pretty sure I unlearned as much as I learned, and I came away amazed at the number of myths that exist in terms of the stories we tell about how some words came to be. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to obscenities, and even if you’re someone who scrupulously avoids reading obscenities in your books, this chapter is worthy of your effort, since it divulges some fascinating history about some of the words you hear others use but pro ...more
Walter Spence
Oct 24, 2012 Walter Spence rated it it was amazing
This wonderful book should be read by everyone for whom the English language plays an important role in their lives. An excellent book which makes me want to read more of Ms. O'Connor's work.

Titled Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, the authors are Patricia T. O’Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, and Stewart Kellerman. She has written four books on writing other than the above, tomes which I plan soon to add to the room I use upstai
Apr 07, 2013 Lucy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Origins of the Specious sets the record straight on some common misconceptions about the English language. It’s so good, it actually made me angry.

If you’re the kind of person who cringes at the sight of a word with a ‘z’ where there ought to be an ‘s’ (“look at all these Americanisms… it’s just not proper English!”), tells the joyful tale of how Thomas Crapper, toilet mogul, lent his name to the act (“before that they didn’t have a rude word for it”), and gets hot under the collar when people m
Mar 22, 2012 Sierra rated it really liked it
I am a die hard fiction reader, if I am not required to read it for a class I never pick up a non-fiction book, until now. I am not sure what drew me to this book; I was poking around a recently added books list at a library and ran across this book, since I am currently in a linguistic based course, I decided to try it. I was definitely impressed; the writing was loose and funny without that “required” reading reek. I thought it was very interesting to learn about when and how that fashionable ...more
Nov 29, 2015 Aiyana rated it it was amazing
Shelves: social-sciences
I've been meaning to read this book for several years now, ever since I first spotted the title and burst out laughing. It does not disappoint. Not only does it correct frequent misconceptions, but it offers a fascinating view into the history of various misunderstood words, phrases, and grammatical rules.

"Like it or not, correctness is determined by common practice, even when a new usage collides with an old established rule. If enough people break it, the rule is dumped... This is how t
Jan 06, 2012 Wise_owl rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This funny little book is a great read and all about the ways in which language is understood, but more importantly, about the things we THINK we know about English are wrong. The author deftly covers things like False Word Histories(Posh does not descend from 'Port Out, Starboard Home'), Linguistic snobbery divorced from historical reality(many word usages we think modern are really ancient, and pronounciations and spellings are often erratic and more ancient than we give credit), Oddities(The ...more
Jun 24, 2009 Barry rated it really liked it
This book, up with which we shall put, had some interesting anecdotes about English language and usage. Some useful tips for writers and those with an interest in the language, as idiosyncratic as it is.
The overall message really is that if others understand it, then it is reasonably good English.
Also, that external logic applied to the language seems to often lead to changes that seem logical but are changes in evolution from where a word or saying began. Sort of like whales that lived on land
Apr 01, 2010 Yofish rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-nonfiction
Basically entertaining etymylogical discussion of various words/phrases. She's a linguist and the book is somewhat set up to correct some misinterpretations; she's a linguist and has to tell people that, no, it's not wrong to write "till" instead of "until" (etymylogically speaking, till came first, and until was first introduced as an alternative), that "inflammable" was a word before "flammable" was (in- as a prefix doesn't just mean 'not'; it can mean an intensifier, as 'invaluable' or, indee ...more
Aug 12, 2016 Ron rated it it was ok
Yet another little survey of mistaken beliefs about word origins,providing historical evidence that presumably recent objectionable neologisms are in reality long-entrenched in English usage, and brave but ultimately useless short discussions of mistaken grammatical issues, such as not ending sentences with prepositions or beginning with conjunctions. Nothing new or all that interesting, but rendered fairly cleverly, with numerous sly puns.
Read as bedtime reading, for which it was ideal: short e
Andrea Johnson
Sep 20, 2014 Andrea Johnson rated it really liked it
2 months after this was our book club book, I finally finished it!

This book was a lot easier to read than it could have been. And the author seemed to find a way to use a ton of puns, but without crossing into groan-worthiness, which was kind of impressive. I felt like I learned a lot, although sometimes it was too much information and I'll never remember a lot of it. Also, there were a lot of things that were "debunked," but an answer never given...or even a "no one knows the answer, but we DO
Oct 27, 2009 rabbitprincess rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: word nerds
Recommended to rabbitprincess by: Lisa Asanuma
An interesting collection of myths and misconceptions about certain words in the English language. In addition to those pesky myths about split infinitives and ending sentences with a preposition, O'Conner and Kellerman set many other misconceptions to rest (using "that" with a person instead of "who" in relative clauses, the idea of "none" always being singular), while debating the changing meanings of some words (such as unique, enormity, surprised/astonished). The book is extremely well resea ...more
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“Speaking of aitches, some British speakers, especially on the telly, use “an” before words like “historic” or “hotel,” and some Anglophiles over here are slavishly imitating them. For shame! Usage manuals on both sides of the Atlantic say the article to use is “a,” not “an.” The rule is that we use “a” before a word that begins with an h that’s pronounced and “an” before a word that starts with a silent h. And dictionaries in both Britain and the United States say the h should be pronounced in “historic” and “hotel” as well as “heroic,” “habitual,” “hypothesis,” “horrendous,” and some other problem h-words.” 0 likes
“A generation or so after slavery ended, segregationists enacted Jim Crow laws that made it impossible for most blacks to vote in the South.” 0 likes
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