I love books about language (check out my bookshelves). Imaginary languages? Weirdly specific glossaries? Talking bonobos? Delightful foreign idioms?...moreI love books about language (check out my bookshelves). Imaginary languages? Weirdly specific glossaries? Talking bonobos? Delightful foreign idioms? The latest neurolinguistic breakthrough? Dubious folk etymologies? Yet another book about controversies in English usage? Add it to the bedside pile.
So you'd think I would have enjoyed this perfectly decent book by Henry Hitchings, who appears to be a perfectly decent fellow. He has already written two perfectly decent books about the English language - "Defining the World" and "The Secret Life of Words". The first was about the OED; I haven't read the second. He is obviously interested in English, given that he keeps coming back to it. He is thorough and methodical, meticulous in acknowledging the work of others. His sentences are grammatical.
Unfortunately, they are also, for the most part, exceedingly dull. Some authors write about language with a passion that is infectious. This is not Hitchings's way. His preferred style is a kind of restrained reasonableness that would be laudable if only it weren't so terribly dull.
The final six chapters, in which he focuses on the state of modern English, were more lively than the historical material that forms the core of the book. Unfortunately, given the total of 28 chapters, these represented only about 20% of the book. Earlier chapters had titles that titillated ("Bishop Lowth Was a Fool!", "Of Fish-knives and Fist-fucks"), but did not live up to their promise.
I want to give it a third star, but I can't. It's a perfectly decent book, though. The word "plodding" is surely undeserved. (less)
The Victorians didn't have internet porn or reality TV. Not even WrestleMania. So how did they while away those long winter evenings? Episodes of Mr D...moreThe Victorians didn't have internet porn or reality TV. Not even WrestleMania. So how did they while away those long winter evenings? Episodes of Mr Dickens's charming serialized novels were maddeningly infrequent, and publicly ostracizing those judged to be morally inferior, though fun and necessary, was hardly a full-time pursuit.
Fortunately, there were people like George Washington Moon, ready to fill that entertainment vacuum. Like many an educated Victorian gentleman, George read the august Dean of Canterbury's essays instructing lesser mortals on the proper use of the Queen's English. AND HE FOUND THEM WANTING. A lesser man might have sneered inwardly over his glass of port and left it at that. But George knew that this would be a dereliction of responsibility. He owed it to the world to set things right. He became a man with a mission. The Dean's crimes had to be exposed to the world. As he explains so forcefully in his introduction to this hilarious piece of sustained invective, nothing personal against the Dean, it's just that
"He who hunts down and pillories a slang phrase, a vulgarism, a corruption of any kind, is a public benefactor. In the fulfillment of the sacred trust which rests on him as an educated man, he adds a stone to the bulwark of his nation's safety and greatness."
He's just doing his duty to protect the Empire. Furthermore, he reminds us that
"The power of sneering was given to man to be used; and nothing is more gratifying than to see an idea which is proving a nuisance, sent clattering away with a hue and cry after it, and a tin kettle tied to its tail".
All this is by way of a warmup, alerting us that things might get a little bloody once he really hits his stride. Which he does, for 154 well-argued, magnificently contemptuous, pages. G.W. Moon is relentless. The Dean never stands a chance.
The whole fracas was the Victorian equivalent of a PayPerView televised cage match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and "The Rock". Hulk Hogan versus Rowdy Roddy Piper. Bret Harte versus Shawn Michaels. Alexis versus Krystle. Moon unleashed his invective in instalments, after each episode, the Doctor would gamely try to defend himself, only to be further bloodied in the next round. AS the fight unfolded, all of Britain's educated class watched from the sidelines, thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. In the words of "The Phonetic Journal"
".... to those who enjoy a controversy, conducted with consummate skill and in excellent taste, by a strong man, well armed, it is such a treat as does not fall in one's way often during a lifetime."
So the mauling of the Dean was accomplished in instalments, avidly followed by the entire educated class of Britain, and later by the intellectual class in the U.S. One senses that his death, in 1870, must have come as a welcome release.
The chapters by G.W. Moon form the core of this book. An appendix contains several reviews of the Dean's book by independent sources, as well as reviews that address both the Dean's book and Moon's critiques. The verdict is fairly uniform -- the body lying bleeding on the mat at the end of the final round is that of the Dean.
I'll confess to a fatal weakness for this kind of thing. A literary cage match between two public intellectuals? About English usage? Where the rules of decorum must be observed, so that the nastiness has to be polite (always the most fun)? I want a front row seat.
Through the magic of digitization of content, we can all have a front row seat for this particular match of the century. Just follow the link -
I loved every one of the previous Schott's Miscellanies; this one is not quite of the same caliber. The uniform excellence of the earlier volumes is n...moreI loved every one of the previous Schott's Miscellanies; this one is not quite of the same caliber. The uniform excellence of the earlier volumes is not maintained here.Though there is still plenty of weirdly fascinating, completely useless trivia, this volume does seem to contain more padding. Ten pages given over to various taxonomies of the different stages of life seems excessive, as does the inclusion of a "Withnail and I Imbibing Guide", and the table of word frequencies in Beatle songs. I would not have missed the complete enumeration of Friends episodes, and tabulating the letters of the Greek alphabet hardly seems worth the space.
But you know what? Maybe I'm just being a petty quibbler here (wouldn't be the first time). Because this is a book that also gives you:
480 different ways to spell "scissors" Tintin and the foreign translators (I confess to a prior obsession with the different linguistic variations of "Dupont et Dupond"; it's all here) Animal cries (apes gibber and magpies chatter, but did you know that mastodons bellow, or that bitterns boom?) The Proust questionnaire Notable winds ((from the Chinook to the Williwaw) Curious economic indicators Fool's errands (tartan paint, ethernet tape, wild haggis, eel's feet, ...) Phrases of supererogation and stupidity (coals to Newcastle, owls to Athens, taking your samovar to Tula, ....) Unusual April's Fool Hoaxes A two-page precipitation lexicon* (toad-stranglers, nubbin-stretchers, monkey's weddings, ...)
Guess what? I've worked myself back up to a 4-star rating. To a certain type of reader (and you know who you are) this stuff is like crack cocaine. This sequel might not be strictly necessary, but that doesn't mean it's not a whole lot of fun.
Forget what I said earlier. Ben Scott's genius remains undisputed.
I considered putting this on the "intellectual con artist at work" shelf, but that wouldn't be quite fair. It's not you, Doctor Pennebaker, it's me. I...moreI considered putting this on the "intellectual con artist at work" shelf, but that wouldn't be quite fair. It's not you, Doctor Pennebaker, it's me. I have no doubt that the research reported on in this book is genuine, if only because of its excruciatingly tedious nature. Frankly, it's hard to get excited (or even to stay awake) about work that uses word-counting as its primary tool, particularly given Doctor P's fawningly enthusiastic invocation of factor analysis as a legitimate statistical method. Even a reader willing to overlook this (serious) deficiency is likely to be bludgeoned into a state of anesthetized indifference by the pedestrian prose and the sheer banality of the conclusions.
It probably didn't help that I read this book immediately after finishing "Thinking Fast and Slow". Daniel Kahneman's clear, careful, measured exposition reminds us that work in experimental psychology can be reported with lucidity and elegance. The mix of anecdotal evidence, statement of the bloody obvious, and somewhat dubious over-generalization found in this book has to be considered a disappointment. And the whole obsession with pronoun usage seems entirely overblown, and not at all convincing.
Upon reflection, and after reading Trevor's excellent, take-no-prisoners review, (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) I have to agree with his assessment and downgrade this to a single star. I will spare Pennebaker the indignity of the "intellectual con artist at work" shelf, if only because I kind of feel sorry for anyone whose life work involves research as pathetically boring as his appears to be. (less)
Learning foreign languages is a topic that interests me greatly -- since retiring from my career in statistics I've made a concerted effort to achieve...moreLearning foreign languages is a topic that interests me greatly -- since retiring from my career in statistics I've made a concerted effort to achieve mastery of Spanish and French, and hope eventually to add Italian and Portuguese to that list. Over the last few years I've given a fair amount of thought to efficient strategies for language acquisition, as well as to the challenges of switching among languages. I don't have any simple answers. Neither does Michael Erard, which is probably a point in his favor. In researching this book he set out to investigate the phenomenon that he refers to (excruciatingly, in my view) as "hyperpolyglottery". Acknowledging the difficulties inherent in judging such concepts as "fluency" or "mastery" (particularly in the case of historical figures), Erard adopts a working definition of a "hyperpolyglot" as someone who exhibits mastery of at least six distinct languages. By studying a number of hyperpolyglots, he hopes to gain insight into the process of language acquisition. The results of his research are frankly disappointing. The book introduces us to a number of reasonably entertaining characters, though one of its primary conclusions seems to be that claims of "hyperpolyglottery" (it hurts me to type that "word", it's so ugly) are invariably exaggerated. The tribe of those claiming extraordinary linguistic capacities is rife with impostors and self-promoters. And the evidence provided by the small number of people whose linguistic abilities seem genuinely exceptional amounts to little more than a series of case studies. There are many anecdotes, but little in the way of firm conclusions. One suspects that Doctor Erard must have been a little disappointed by the results of his investigation. I certainly was, though I give him credit for trying.(less)
The first foreign language I learned to complete fluency was German - after five years of high school German I spent a year at a German boys' boarding...moreThe first foreign language I learned to complete fluency was German - after five years of high school German I spent a year at a German boys' boarding school. At the end of that year I was completely fluent, but noticed an odd phenomenon, that I felt like a slightly different person when I spoke German than when speaking English. Since then I've also learned Spanish to a high degree of fluency, and the same observation holds. In both cases, the main difference that I perceive has to do with humor, and the way the language I'm speaking affects my sense of humor. So I've always been interested in the extent to which language affects thought. The notion that it does is what linguists refer to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Belief in Sapir-Whorf reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century, but since then the notion that language affects cognition has been discredited by almost all mainstream linguists.
In "Through the Language Glass" Guy Deutscher mounts a careful, very limited defence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He considers three major areas - the link between language and color perception, how different languages deal with spatial orientation, and the phenomenon of differences in noun genders across different languages. His examination of the link between language and color perception is extensive and thought-provoking - he traces the development of linguistic theory on color perception from British prime minister Gladstone's commentary on the relative paucity of color terms in Homer's work, through the Berlin-Kay model (stating essentially that languages all tend to split up the color spectrum in similar ways) through very recent experiments suggesting that the existence of a particular color distinction in a language (e.g. the existence of separate terms in Russian for light and dark blue) affects the brain's ability to perceive that distinction. Deutscher's account of the evolution of linguistic theory about color perception is a tour de force of scientific writing for a general audience - it is both crystal clear and a pleasure to read.
Two factors contributed to my eventual disappointment with this book. The first is that, even after Deutscher's careful, eloquent, persuasive analysis, one's final reaction has to be a regretful "So what?" In the end, it all seems to amount to little of practical importance.
The second disappointment pertained only to the experience of reading this book on an Amazon Kindle. Reference is made throughout to a "color insert" which evidently contained several color wheels as well as up to a dozen color illustrations. This feature was completely absent from the Kindle edition, which had a severe adverse effect on the overall experience of reading this book. Obviously, this point is relevant only if you are contemplating reading the Kindle version - DON'T!(less)
This is an odd book, and not a very good one. As someone with over 120 books on my "words-and-language" shelf, I'm a confirmed language geek. Even the...moreThis is an odd book, and not a very good one. As someone with over 120 books on my "words-and-language" shelf, I'm a confirmed language geek. Even the remotest byways of language have the potential to fascinate me. Though my interest in language is purely amateur, it is of long standing. (When I was learning Spanish a couple of years ago, my classmates were completely spooked by my enthusiasm for the subjunctive, which they deemed "unnatural".) The point is, where books about words and language are concerned, my bar is pretty low. I'm predisposed to like anything written by someone who is enthusiastic about language, generally willing to give the benefit of the doubt.
So a language book has to suck big time for me not to like it. Secret Language manages this by fitting squarely in the category of total pointlessness. For the life of me I can't figure out why this book was written, or what the author was trying to get across. The title seems to promise a unifying theme; I'm sure Barry Blake hoped for something more coherent than this dog's breakfast of a book.
There are two main problems. First, the author's inclusion criteria are far too broad. Under the rubric of "secret language" he drags in so many different topics that the result is an incoherent blur. Major chapter headings include:
1. From Anagrams to Cryptic Crosswords 2. Talking in Riddles 3. Ciphers and Codes 4. Biblical Secrets* 5. Words of Power 6. Words to Avoid 7. Jargon, Slang, Argot & Secret Languages 8. The Everyday Oblique 9. Elusive Allusions
This doesn't look too bad, but there's less to it than meets the eye. The book runs to about 300 pages, so you might reasonably ask
"How will Barry Blake manage to tell us something coherent and interesting about so many subjects in such a short book?"
The answer is simple. He doesn't. He flits from one topic to the next, like a slightly deranged hummingbird on speed, with about as much impact. Any risk of saying anything of substance is minimized by darting rapidly from one topic to the next. The remarks that do make it in are, with rare exceptions, astonishingly banal. Here, for instance, is what Barry has to say about internet argot:
The invention of the internet has given rise to an extensive argot among those communicating by email, instant messaging, and other social media. There are a number of rebus-type substitutions for syllables such as B4 'before', C 'see', M8 'mate', U 'you', abbreviations such as LOL 'laughing out loud', and emoticons such as :-) for 'smile' and :-( for 'sad' (if they are not transparent, turn them 90 degrees clockwise). Similar abbreviations are used in texting by mobile phone.
Pretty edifying stuff, eh? There's a similar paragraph telling us how internet spammers like to incorporate deliberate misspellings in words like Ciali$ or V1agra to thwart email spam filters, whose inclusion I'll spare you, because the boredom in transcribing it might actually be lethal.
The basic problem is that most of the book is like this - the author has very little to say that's original, his writing style makes for heavy sledding, and whatever enthusiasm he might feel for his subject isn't evident to the reader. I found the final chapter, "Elusive Allusions", in which the author explains such difficult linguistic conundrums as the reason Ah-nold is referred to as the "Governator" and the origins of phrases like "Achilles heel" and "Trojan horse", particularly irritating.
*: The inclusion of a chapter devoted to such rubbish as "bible codes" and the like is dispiriting. The "History" channel has a lot to answer for.(less)
I've been a word geek for as long as I can remember. Big words, little words, in or out of context - they fascinate and delight me. Those lists of we...moreI've been a word geek for as long as I can remember. Big words, little words, in or out of context - they fascinate and delight me. Those lists of weirdly specific phobias , bizarre methods of divining the future , beastly adjectives , crash blossoms -- they keep me entertained for days. In line at the post office, I make up words in my head, or concoct fake but amusing typos. I construct weird little ditties which then stick in my head like the hook of a power ballad by REO Speedwagon.
To someone with a word addiction, the internet presents a constant, boundless, temptation. All those time sinks, the verbal equivalent of YouTube for logophiles, we have them all bookmarked. What's that you say, somewhere there's a list of all the words that David Foster Wallace had circled in his dictionary? How could a person not go visit? Before you know it, another hour wasted, hungry cats circling, and the dishes still not done.
But my interest in words and language is strictly that of an amateur. That’s why you won't find me writing books on the topic. I have your typical INTJ's respect for technical competence, which is to say that I expect someone who writes a book about a given subject to know something about it. This is obviously a very regressive view, in an age where everyone's an expert on everything, courtesy of Wikipedia. But you know, people with an amateur interest in physics, or astronomy, or some other "hard" science generally have enough awareness of their own limitations to stop them from writing books on quantum physics or string theory. Amateur wordlovers and armchair linguists, on the other hand, apparently feel no such inhibition. After all, they've been using words their entire life, so why shouldn't they write a book?
Two particular topics seem to hold a fatal attraction for armchair wordlovers. The first I’ll call “folk etymology”. Since uninformed speculation about the origins of common words and phrases is free and easy, almost anyone can come up with a rambling script that (choose one): 1. purports to establish that virtually every English slang term in current use is derived from a Gaelic/Sanskrit/Klingon root (take your pick) 2. perpetuates the usual grab bag of linguistic urban legends that pollute the internet 3. adds another two cents to the mountain of rampant speculation about the origins of a handful of expressions that might reasonably be termed “the usual suspects”. It is mandatory for books in the third category to include at least four pages of tedious speculation about the origins of the term "OK", just as it is customary to pad those in the second category with demonstrably false (mis)information presented as fact (rule of thumb is related to wife-beating, posh is an acronym for "port out, starboard home" on ships to India, news is an acronym signifying “North-East-West-South, saved by the bell originated with precautions taken by people who feared being buried alive, and other popular linguistic urban legends). The canonical example in the first category is the appalling, shameful, How the Irish Invented Slang, a monument to a certain kind of sloppy “scholarship” so wilfully anti-intellectual it flirts with mental retardation. The basic fallacy is an inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish between random similarities in spelling and a genuine etymological connection, leading to such obviously bogus claims as the statement that “jazz” and “bunkum” have Gaelic roots. A (relatively restrained) debunking may be found at this link.
The second lexicological McGuffin is the slippery concept of “words in other languages that have no exact equivalent in English”, often referred to as being “untranslatable”. This is like catnip to word-fanciers; in addition to Christopher Moore’s book, there are several others out there with the same basic premise. Howard Rheingold’s They Have a Word for It dates back to 1988; in 2005, an English author called Adam Jacot de Boinod came out with “The meaning of Tingo” in similar vein, and subsequently followed it with a sequel, “The Wonder of Whiffling”. Books in this general category all follow the same approximate formula – lists of putatively untranslatable words in various languages, interspersed with comments by the author of varying length and insight. They all face the same fundamental challenge, not always successfully – since the author cannot possibly master every language for which an example is quoted, he cannot guarantee accuracy of content based on personal knowledge and is forced to rely on external sources.
It doesn’t always work out as well as you might hope. “The Meaning of Tingo”, for example, is generally recognized to be riddled with inaccuracies; a distressingly high proportion of entries have no discernible basis in fact and are, at best, amusing flights of fancy. This inconvenient truth is not acknowledged explicitly by the author, but becomes clear if one reads the comments at the author’s website, or reviews of the book at Amazon. There are a few warning signs, however – an uncritical embracing of the linguistic urban legend involving the number of Eskimo words for snow, inclusion of the Russian (non)-word for falling out of love, “razliubit”, as well as a generally unquestioning tone of acceptance that borders on the naive.
I regret to report that Christopher Moore’s contribution to this particular sub-genre is also notable for its general air of credulity. His scholarly approach appears to have been little more than to find and ask one native speaker for each of a variety of languages. The results are amusing, but don’t inspire much confidence. There is a suspiciously high number of words of alleged Scandinavian and Teutonic origin which purport to describe the unique sense of “coziness at home” felt by inhabitants of the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Norway – it makes a person wonder if there isn’t some kind of concerted conspiracy by inhabitants of these countries to present a more positive view of life in winter than can realistically thought plausible. “Razliubit” also makes an appearance, with no indication that its status as genuine is mired in controversy. And, in the one area where I have some personal ability to make a judgment, I estimated that about half the words of “celtic” origin included were problematic in some way. But then the introductory sentence to that chapter gives a clear indication of where the problems are likely to lie, not just for the chapter, but for the entire book:
“Gaelic is an ancient Celtic tongue with an oral tradition that spans almost two thousand years and reflects a crofting lifestyle that remained virtually unchanged in all that time.”
The magical, mystical celtic twilight strikes again! With this sentence Moore unwittingly points out the flaw that undermines his own endeavor – ultimately the kind of “untranslatable word” that is likely to make it into his book is that which confirms whatever preexisting romantic notion he has about the language and people concerned, accuracy be damned.
But then I realize that this is the unavoidable flaw in every book in this category. If it bothers you, steer clear. If not, be my guest – you may find these books funny and diverting. Just please ingest with a few grains of salt. (less)
I actually own the third edition of this fine book, by which time Ricardo Navas-Ruiz had added a co-author, someone called Covadonga Llorente. The tit...moreI actually own the third edition of this fine book, by which time Ricardo Navas-Ruiz had added a co-author, someone called Covadonga Llorente. The title has also changed, as the book now incorporates a section on La Voz Pasiva.
Not to minimize Covadonga's contribution, but the passive voice is the least of your worries as far as the whole ser/estar morass is concerned. The two chapters it gets at the end of the book run to only 9 of the book's 90 pages.
The problem with the whole ser/estar problem is that there's really no getting away from it. If you want to speak Spanish that's even remotely idiomatic, you will have to wrestle with both forms of the verb to be. How hideous you find it may vary, depending on your familiarity with other languages, many of which find even more complicated ways of expressing the state of being (Irish comes to mind).
Anyway, this is a decent little book, focusing on examples and exercise drills rather than theory. Which is exactly what this kind of book should do. It does, of course, sneak in two chapters about prepositions (para, con, sin, a, de, en, & por), but that's unavoidable, as they are essential in the formation of various modismos and expresiones especiales using ser & estar.
There's no effort to liven things up, say with humor, drawings, or any concession to decent graphic design. The approach is charmless, but efficient.
I read McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" a few years ago and thought it was terrific. His subsequent effort, "Doing our own Thing", was a major disappo...moreI read McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" a few years ago and thought it was terrific. His subsequent effort, "Doing our own Thing", was a major disappointment - self-indulgent, undisciplined, and essentially pointless. So I would have skipped this one (a cover blurb that squeezes the chestnuts "rollicking tour" and "rousing celebration" into the same sentence is generally not a good sign). Did I really need reassurance from yet another linguist that it's OK to split an infinitive, or to end a sentence with a preposition? But then there was Manny's recent rave review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....
My reaction? Modified rapture at best. There's a kind of forced flashiness to McWhorter's style that I don't particularly enjoy. Calling English a dolphin in a family of assorted types of deer (the Germanic relatives of English) gets the point across, but the metaphor is nowhere near as clever as McWhorter seems to think, and spinning it out across two paragraphs ("antlered, fleet-footed, big-brown-eyed variations on a theme" - yeah, dude, we know what the word "deer" means, as if you hadn't already enumerated "antelopes, springboks, kudu, and so on" earlier in the sentence) is irritating, to say the least.
For the first 60 pages of this book, McWhorter sets out to answer the question of why English favors the use of "be" and "do" as auxiliary verbs in constructions like "I'm watching TV" (actual present, as opposed to the habitual present "I watch TV", a distinction which confuses the bejasus out of most non-native speakers), in questions ("do you watch"?), or negative statements. None of its immediate relatives, either on the Germanic or the Romance side, uses such a construction. Fair enough, it's not a completely boring question, though it's hardly the major mystery he makes it out to be either. I figured out the answer to this at about age 5, when I first started to learn Irish (Gaelic) -- it's a Celtic thing, see?
So that extended first chapter, in which the only point that is being developed is that the Celtic languages (Irish, Welsh, Scots Gaelic) influenced English syntax, hardly qualifies as a major revelation. Unfortunately, McWhorter beats it into the ground like the proverbial dead horse. For 60 pages. You start the second chapter with a sense of profound relief only to find - unspeakable horror - that he's not done. More statement of the profoundly obvious.
I guess this is the major reason for my inability to share Manny's rabid enthusiasm for this book. Like so many of his colleagues, McWhorter expends a lot of effort in addressing what I consider to be obvious linguistic strawmen - the notion that linguistics is just about etymology, the red herring of grammatical hypercorrectness, the idea that vocabulary is the only measure of influence of one language on another, the spectacularly uninteresting strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It's as if he's writing for a readership consisting exclusively of people who have never undergone the intellectual exercise of learning a second language. Because if you've ever gone through that particular struggle, it seems to me that you're guaranteed to have thought about language deeply enough to make much of the material in this book seem like little more than a statement of the bloody obvious.
And yeah, what the hell - it's a book about language, so I'll bitch. The shorthand term McWhorter uses throughout, that English employs a "meaningless do", seems infelicitous at best. (less)
This is an undisciplined dogs-breakfast of a book. David Crystal, the author of such previous books as "How Language Works", "The Stories of English"...moreThis is an undisciplined dogs-breakfast of a book. David Crystal, the author of such previous books as "How Language Works", "The Stories of English" is a highly respected commentator on language. For the life of me, I have never been able to figure out why - he has a flair for dullness that must be considered remarkable.
The blurb on the back cover describes this book as "a jaunty Bill Bryson-esque exploration of (the English) language by a foremost expert on the subject", which I probably should have interpreted as a warning of the sloppy, disorganized, stream-of-consciousness muddle within. I don't know much about the publishers of this mess, the Overlook Press, but the available evidence suggests that their budget didn't actually run to hiring an editor.
For almost 300 pages, Professor Crystal wanders the backroads of Wales and the west of England (with an occasional excursion to Silicon Valley and to Lodz) and bores us with his random free-associations about local place names and language communities as he does so. Unfortunately, these observations never rise above the pedestrian - the chapter about San Francisco is almost lethally soporific, and the only adequate description of his occasional efforts at wit is the phrase "epic fail".
If this is his best effort, the professor really should consider retiring to spend more time with his family.(less)
Various editions of this book are available online in digitized form. But that shouldn't stop you from getting your own physical copy. Nothing can riv...moreVarious editions of this book are available online in digitized form. But that shouldn't stop you from getting your own physical copy. Nothing can rival the joy of browsing through it - you're bound to learn something fascinating along the way. As Terry Pratchett says in the Foreword, it's a storehouse of "little parcels of serendipitous information of a kind that are perhaps of no immediate use, but which are, nevertheless very good for the brain."
First published in 1870, Brewer's has flourished for over a century. It has always been the reference book that "reaches the parts others cannot", the option you try if what you are looking for is not in a standard dictionary or encyclopedia. Even if you don't find what you're looking for, chances are you'll uncover something even more interesting. The fact that it has reached its 17th edition (published in 2005) suggests that it clearly meets a need, even if its exact scope can be hard to pin down precisely. Certainly, one need look no further with a question about ‘traditional’ myths and legends – from the Erymanthian boar to the Swan of Tuonela, from Aarvak and the Abbasids to zombies and Zoroastrians, they’re all covered. The latest edition updates the mythical pantheon to include such creatures as the Balrog and Nazgûl, Voldemort and Dumbledore, the Psammead and Zaphod Beeblebrox, to name only a few.
This edition incorporates many new features to tempt the reader -- a listing of idioms from Spanish, French, and German, first lines in fiction, assorted sayings attributed to Sam Goldwyn, curious place names in Great Britain and Ireland, the dogs, horses, and last words of various historical and fictional figures. So, while looking for information on freemasonry, you may find yourself diverted to learn that French people don’t dress to the nines – instead they put on their thirty-one, perhaps in preparation for a bout of window pane licking (window shopping). And if that femme fatale you met last night stands you up this evening, it may be that she has other cats to whip. Or it could be that she has received a messenger from Rome (who might be called Aunt Flo by an English speaker).
But as always, it’s the weird tidbits, stumbled across by sheer accident, that are the real delight. For instance, I could certainly have gotten through my entire life without knowing about the blue men of the Minch . But knowing that they are legendary beings who haunt the Minches (the channels separating the Outer Hebrides from the rest of Scotland), occasionally bothering sailors, enriches my life. The added information that they are either kelpies or fallen angels, and are reputed to drag mariners to the bottom of the sea if they fail to answer questions in rhyming couplets (in Gaelic, naturally), fills me with unutterable glee.
As do most of the entries in this terrific reference book.
Initially this book was fairly amusing, but somewhere around the half-way mark its charms began to fade, and by the end it was just plain exhausting....moreInitially this book was fairly amusing, but somewhere around the half-way mark its charms began to fade, and by the end it was just plain exhausting. This was certainly not the fault of the author, who was an engaged and enthusiastic tour guide throughout. But ultimately the cumulative craziness of the various language inventors takes its toll.
Okrent's tour of the "land of invented languages" covers a lot of ground, making five major stops, each of which considers a particular example in depth:
John Wilkins's "philosophical language" (1668) Ludwik Zamenhof's Esperanto (1887) Charles Bliss's symbolic language, "Semantography" (1949) James Cooke Brown's language of logic, "Loglan" (1960) Marc Okrand's Klingon (1985)
A major strength of the book is Okrent's ability to place each of these particular invented languages within its historical context. She also manages to convey the essential flavor of each language in a style which is not overburdened with linguistic technicalities, and with a refreshing sense of humor throughout.
Her tolerance for the sheer weirdness that permeates the various personalities she encounters along the way ultimately exceeds mine. I had a certain grudging admiration for John Wilkins's noble attempt to categorize everything in the universe, as well as for the idealism displayed by proponents of Esperanto. But the monomania of Bliss and Brown, their protracted legal wranglings in defence of their weirdly idosyncratic creations made for depressing reading. And, though I share a certain geekiness where language is concerned, it doesn't really extend far enough to make me find the development of Klingon and the antics of those who "speak" it anything other than tedious.
So, I think this book would have 5-star appeal only to someone far geekier than I. Nonetheless, it is an impressive and entertaining accomplishment. The author is to be congratulated.(less)
The best parts of this intermittently fascinating book by Michael Adams are those where he gives free rein to his enthusiasm for the recondite details...moreThe best parts of this intermittently fascinating book by Michael Adams are those where he gives free rein to his enthusiasm for the recondite details of slang for a hugely diverse array of "language communities". The specific slang terms that he includes, from sources such as
* inhabitants of the Buffieverse (Professor Adams is an acknowledged expert on Slayer slang) * restaurant jargon * stamp-collecting * snowboarding * soccer moms * raver culture * "hip" and "raunch" cultures * different online social networks
are hugely entertaining and are by far the best part of this book.
For those who just get a kick out of language, but who have neither a background in linguistics nor any professional involvement, the main attraction of this book will probably lie in these concrete examples (and the author's obvious delight in presenting them). Professor Adams does have his academic career to consider, so the book also contains a certain amount of - how to put this delicately - less accessible prose (you know, the kind of headache-inducing bumf that members of the academy seem to feel obliged to cobble together to confuse/intimidate/bore their colleagues and rivals into submission). I've never really been clear about why academic prose is so uniformly impenetrable. Since I am disposed to like Professor Adams, who establishes himself as a genial guide with a good sense of humor in the first two chapters, I will spare everyone the cheap shot of picking out a particularly bad sentence to mock as part of this review. Professor Adams has mercifully confined most of the worst academic jargon to the final chapter (roughly the last 40 pages out of 200), and for all I know, if you are steeped in Chomsky's linguistic theories and have a particular interest in cognitive linguistics (heck, if you even know what that is), it might be smooth sailing for you. But it's a safe bet that most people will have tuned out well before they reach that final tormented (and more or less incomprehensible) "slang as linguistic spandrel" metaphor.
In a way, I felt kind of sorry for Professor Adams, that he felt the need to get all theoretical on us towards the end. At the outset, he appears to set himself a baffling, and completely unnecessary challenge, namely to come up with a definition of "slang". Not too surprisingly, he fails to do this in any convincing way, but I think perhaps he was just using the definition challenge as a device around which to structure his thoughts about slang. Other than the Chomsky-fest in the final chapter, the author's general remarks about slang (it represents a deliberate break with established conventions, often with the intent of defining a particular 'in'-group; commonly serves as a vehicle for people to show off their linguistic prowess/indulge their pleasure in language games) don't go beyond anything you hadn't already figured out for yourself.
There were two specific points where I just couldn't share the author's enthusiasm (which just seemed endearingly goofy, but weird).
Homeric infixing (the reference is to the Simpsons, not the Odyssey), exemplified by "edumacation", "saxamaphone", or the hideous Flanders variation where the infix is 'diddly', is neither as clever or as fascinating as Professor Adams appears to think. The amount of space devoted to this single linguistic tic was vast, baffling, and lethally boring.
The phrase "how's it going, protozoan?" might have seemed clever, once, when some member of the author's family coined it at the breakfast table. It is not a phrase that deserves to appear in print more than once. That it appears repeatedly throughout the book, often in conjunction with even more regrettable phrases, such as "Please don't pout, my sauerkraut" and "Don't rock the boat, you billy goat!" is unfortunate, to say the least. It was as if Teddy Ruxpin had suddenly joined the debate.
I was perfectly happy to excuse these lapses, given that the author provided several more entries to add to my list of euphemisms for the specific activity variously known as:
bash the bishop, grip the gorilla, paddle the pickle, punish the pope, rub your radish, wave your wand, jerk the gherkin, tickle the pickle, yank the plank, jerk your jewels, gallop the antelope, etc etc etc...
Other pleasures included the hundred or more slang terms for ecstasy included in the first chapter, the primer on dating and sex terms used by young soccer moms ('perma-laid', 'flirt buddies', 'coin-slot shot', 'spliff'), slayer slang, and snowboarding jargon. Not to mention learning such necessary urban survival terms as 'bagpiping', 'maple bar', 'lobbin' and 'cherryoke'. That last one is what you lose at your first karaoke performance - the others you'll have to research for yourself.
Read this book for the fun examples and Michael Adams's infectious enthusiasm for language. The final 40 pages should be attempted only if you are feeling particularly masochistic.(less)
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the plus side, it definitely fills a niche. It's well-organized and easy to use. But coverage seems idiosync...moreI have mixed feelings about this book. On the plus side, it definitely fills a niche. It's well-organized and easy to use. But coverage seems idiosyncratic - sometimes seeming oddly all-embracing (you get the impression that some words are in there just because they may, at one time, have shared a dictionary with an animal), but with definite gaps, and already appearing distinctly dated (it was published in 1995). Specific examples are given below, but first my scoring in various categories.
Coverage: 3 out of 5 Scholarship: 4.5 out of 5. User-friendliness: 4.5 out of 5 Charm: 2 out of 5
Total: 14 out of 20, or 3.5 stars.
To give credit where it is due, the dictionary is extremely well-organized. The primary alphabetical listing of entries is augmented by a second index, wherein all entries are re-listed by animal (alphabetically by animal). This second index, which runs to 40 pages, also includes sections for "bird (general)", "fish (general)", and "insect (general", and is one of the most attractive features of the book. For instance, it allows one to get an immediate answer to the question: "what animal is the basis for the most metaphors?" (horse, with dog as a close second). Cross-referencing is extensive and helpful.
Scholarship appears excellent - the list of primary references is comprehensive, but not excessive, and Professor Palmatier is an authoritative guide, albeit a somewhat matter-of-fact one. Reaction to the style in which the explanations are couched is, of course, subjective, but I found the dryness of his style - I can't avoid the word - just plain dull. I have no doubt that Professor Palmatier is a language enthusiast (I mean, let's face it, only someone who's a little crazy about language would even contemplate an undertaking like this dictionary), but somehow his enthusiasm doesn't really shine through in most of the entries.
This lack of charisma is the main reason for my low rating on the 'charm' scale. Also, despite apparently broad inclusion criteria ('erode' and 'erase' are included, linked to the rat only on the basis of a shared etymological root, 'rodere', the verb "to dig"; CAT scan and catsup are included, despite having nothing to do with cats, or any other animal), there are some glaring omissions. Some of these reflect evolution of the language since 1995, but not all can be explained in this way. Below is a partial list of terms you won't find in the dictionary; I'm sure there are others.
Some may reasonably be believed to have entered the language after publication of this dictionary: jump the shark, prairie-dogging, skunkworks, mouse potato, yak-shaving, seagull manager, salmon day, donkey sentence, feathered fish, stress puppy, idea hamster, ant farm, goat-roping exercise, mole-groomer, sleep camel , and may be judged not yet to have passed the test of time. Other omissions seem less defensible: doe-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look, like herding cats, four horsemen of the apocalypse, pale horse, singerie, frogmarch, elephant’s graveyard, culture vulture, zebra crossing, Schrodinger’s cat, brass monkey weather, dead cat bounce, dogsbody, monkeys’ (or foxes’) wedding, poodle-faker . I give Professor Palmatier the benefit of the doubt on sweater puppies. Pussies and beavers are given their due in the dictionary, though don’t look for the more vulgar, feline, version of henpecked. Credit to Prof P. for overcoming his midwestern reticence to include the term “beaver shot”, an instance where his somewhat desiccated style serves him well:
shoot a beaver: to sneak a look at, or photograph, the adult female pudenda, or vulva. The American beaver has long been prized for its thick brown fur, which is used to make capes, coats, and hats, although the semiaquatic animal is usually trapped rather than shot. A beaver shot is a filmed or taped picture of the female genitals.
(That little aside, "is usually trapped rather than shot", is hilarious).
I didn’t intend for this review to end on a vulgar note; it just seems to have worked out that way.
breadth of coverage: 4 ease of use: 4 scholarship: 4 charm: 3 total = 15
Comments: Good succinct definitions; sometimes too succinct. For instance, we are told that 'banzai' is a Japanese warcry, but not that it means 'may you live 10,000 years' (from ban "ten thousand" + sai "year.") A definition of 'baculus' as a rod or staff is included, but we are not told that 'baculum' means 'penis bone'. Pronunciation guide requires knowledge of the IPA, which is included at the beginning of the book, but not on each page, as is done in some dictionaries. A strong point is the inclusion of several essays on specific topics such as words which are commonly confused, the top 100 misspelled words, differences between British and U.S. spelling and pronunciation, basics of punctuation and grammar, and common usage questions. In general, these essays appear sensible and likely to be genuinely helpful.
I wanted to like this book much more than I actually did. Grant Barrett is a highly-respected lexicographer who maintains the excellent website, the d...moreI wanted to like this book much more than I actually did. Grant Barrett is a highly-respected lexicographer who maintains the excellent website, the double-tongued dictionary. From his bio on that site:
"Grant Barrett, creator and editor of the Double-Tongued Dictionary, is an American lexicographer and editor of The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English (May 2006, McGraw-Hill). He is also co-host of the language-related public radio show A Way With Words, broadcast nationwide via radio, streaming, and podcast. He also serves as vice president for communications and technology for the American Dialect Society, an academic organization that has been devoted to the study of English in North America since 1889. He currently does freelance lexicography for Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and for the Collins-brand dictionaries published by Cengage, formerly Thomson Heinle. In the past, he served as project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang and edited the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (2004). On occasion, he contributes to the journal American Speech and writes for newspapers such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Malaysian Star. He also has a personal weblog called The Lexicographer's Rules."
Content in "The Official Dictionary ..." has been culled from the double-tongued dictionary website, whose focus Barrett describes as follows:
"The Double-Tongued Dictionary records undocumented or under-documented words from the fringes of English, with a focus on slang, jargon, and new words. This site strives to record terms and expressions that are absent from, or are poorly covered in, mainstream dictionaries."
Here are my ratings:
Coverage: 2 Usability: 4 Scholarship: 4 Charm: 2 Total: 12/20, for an overall 3-star rating. BUT SEE BELOW.
Comments: My relatively low scores for coverage and charm need some explication. Paradoxically, the low score for "coverage" is actually a reflection, in this case, of the enormously broad scope of the dictionary. Candidate entries for the website, and for this book, were obtained by automated google-searching across the internet; the subsequent editing and filtering to decide what should be included in the dictionary presumably reflect Mr Barrett's judgement and personal preferences. I can hardly fault him for exercising editorial judgement, except that the result is, somehow, frustratingly unsatisfying. The net he casts is so wide, and the resulting selection so idiosyncratic, that the final result conveys a certain eccentricity, but not that much charm (despite Barrett's obvious enthusiasm and scholarship). I was left befuddled as to what the particular selection of entries in this dictionary is supposed to represent. Are they words that Barrett believes *are not yet in standard dictionaries, but ought to be? *are not yet in standard dictionaries, but are likely to be in future? *deserve broader attention (if so, why)? *merit inclusion, just because he found them neat?
It's just not clear. Many of the entries don't strike me as meeting the first two criteria at all, and a word's 'charm' is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But consider these entries;
"marbit", a marshmallow bit found in processed breakfast cereal; "godunk", a person who solicits free airplane trips (the only two citations date from 1939 and 1946); "gap out", a variant of "space out"; "FLOHPA", an acronym used to denote the swing states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania during the 2004 election (all five citations date from 2004); "dub-dub", a restaurant server (possibly specific to the TGI Friday's restaurant chain) "ding-ding", Hong Kong term for a streetcar "Califunny", a jocular or derisive name for California "land of fruit and nuts", jocular or derogatory name for California "lolicom", a Lolita complex, the attraction of older men to young girls "rinse", new Zealand prison slang for GHB "Rummy's dummies", derisive term for the U.S. military, "unass", to dismount or disembark "wet", prison slang for a recreational drug made from marijuana, PCP, and formaldehyde "in the weeds", restaurant slang for the condition of a waiter who is completely swamped "yumptious", delicious - a portmanteau of 'yummy' and 'scrumptious' "vuzvuz", derogatory term applied by Sephardic jews to Ashkenazic jews.
Do I need to explain why I find none of them even remotely interesting or clever? How about:
weirdly uninteresting specificity, only of interest to a subset of waiters and felons; built-in obsolescence, sell-by date already in the past (FLOHPA, Rummy's dummies); terminal stupidity (Califunnia? CALIFUNNIA?); needed to be executed at birth (yumptious, unass); any combination of the above reasons.
I hate to say it, but there is no obvious reason for this particular book to exist. I am forced to override my own brilliantly evenhanded scoring system and downgrade my rating to two stars. And that's being generous.