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

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In Origins of the Specious, word mavens Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman explode the misconceptions that have led generations of language lovers astray. They reveal why some of grammar's best-known "rules" aren't--and never were--rules at all. They explain how Brits and Yanks wound up speaking the same language so differently, and why British English isn't necessarily purer. This playfully witty yet rigorously researched book sets the record straight about bogus word origins, politically correct fictions, phony français, fake acronyms, and more. English is an endlessly entertaining, ever-changing language, and yesterday's blooper could be tomorrow's bon mot--or vice versa!

266 pages, Hardcover

First published May 5, 2009

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Patricia T. O'Conner

6 books24 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 107 reviews
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,427 reviews8,339 followers
May 26, 2012
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 and comprehend, but by the end she leaned in the opposite direction, stating that some words' meaning and usage should be preserved as they originally were. That discombobulated me.

Overall, recommended to lovers of linguistics or people who are curious about where certain words come from.
Profile Image for Chris.
341 reviews952 followers
June 13, 2010
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 the ever-fluctuating nature of English, adapt yourself to its changes and go on with your life, or do your damnedest to hold back the tide of error that is slowly overtaking your beloved tongue.

For reasons that should be obvious, the former type of person is far less likely to write books. Their laid back, laissez faire attitude towards the world is less inclined to make them mad enough to sit down at a computer and pound out thousands of words on the state of the language today. The latter type of person - and I do occasionally count myself among them - are far more likely to sit up late at night and write scathing tracts about the utter and complete degeneration of today's language - about split infinitives and buzzwords and the ungodly Frenchification of English. If you listen to the sticklers, you might be forgiven for thinking that the very fabric of the English Language is in a state of decay, rotten and putrescent, and ready to fall apart any moment.

Patricia O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman are here to give you some perspective, something in which language sticklers are usually lacking, and perhaps lessen the incandescent rage that overtakes you when you hear people use "infer" to mean "imply," or "unique" to mean "special," or say, "I could care less," even though you know it's supposed to be "I couldn't care less," because I mean my GOD, even a CHILD, even a half-trained, concussed MONKEY could see how that phrase works, what's so hard about a simple word, you MORONS, you gibbering pack of....

****We are experiencing technical difficulties at the moment. Please stand by. We apologize for the inconvenience.****

And we're back. Sorry about that.

This book is about errors in English, and not only the legitimate ones. It's also about how some of those errors aren't really errors, or how they used to be, but now they aren't. O'Connor and Kellerman are looking to give us a historical sense of how the language has evolved and changed over the centuries, and let us know that the rules of language can't be set by prim and stuffy grammarians from two hundred years ago.

Those Grammarians, for example, are often called The Latinists, and a great many of them come from the 18th century. In those days, Latin was held up as being some kind of "perfect tongue," and there was a certain fetish for making English play under Latin rules. The authors wryly note that this would make "about as much sense as having the Chicago Cubs play by the same rules as the Green Bay Packers." For those of you who are rusty on your linguistic history, Latin split off into what are called the Romance Languages, which includes Spanish, French and Italian. English, on the other hand, has its roots in the Germanic side of the great language tree, and so is more similar to German, Dutch and Frisian. The vast number of Latin-based words we have are, technically, imports, as English is merely a cousin to Latin, not its descendant.

But no, there were Those who wanted us to be more Latin-like, and so they imposed rules on English that made no sense whatsoever. Such as the Split Infinitive Rule (i.e. not putting a word between to and a verb - to boldly go would be considered an utter abomination to these people.) In Latin (and Spanish, and French, and Italian), the infinitive form of a verb is a single word - it is literally impossible to split. English, however, has two-word infinitives, and plenty of room to joyfully put in modifiers.

Another good example is using the word "none" as a plural - "None of the ninjas are dead." The old grammarians would insist that the sentence be, "None of the ninjas is dead," because "none" is a compressed form of "not one." Even the venerable Stephen Fry can be caught pushing this one, in a rather hilarious outtake video from his wonderful quiz show QI. Fact is, people have been using "none" as a plural for centuries, and it was accepted language back then. The current fracas about it rose up in 1795 when a guy named Lindley Murray suggested that while "none" can be used as either a singular or plural, it is really best used as a singular. Which English sticklers all took as, "It really must be used as a singular." A hundred years later, and it's become an ironclad "RULE," with no more foundation than one grammarian's half-hearted opinion.

There's also a great section on bad etymology - these are the stories about word origins that everybody knows, but which are most certainly wrong. For example, the origin of the word "Jeep" is usually attributed to a reading-aloud of "G.P.," meaning "general purpose," an appellation allegedly applied to these indestructible vehicles. Nope, sorry - it comes from Popeye comics. Or think about the Xmas season - whoops! I mean, Christmas season. Use "Xmas" today and you'll get lambasted for taking the Christ out of Christmas. The abbreviated word is now looked upon as a Secular Humanist Plot to ruin Christmas for all the good god-fearing folks. Nope - the letter X has been representing Christ for more than a thousand years, and comes from the Greek letter X (chi), which is the first letter of Χριστός, which means, yes - Christ. The venerable Oxford English Dictionary can trace "Xmas" as far back as 1551, in fact.

One part of the book that really got my attention (other than Chapter 5 - the one on swearing) was the chapter on words that have fallen out of favor due to hyper-sensitive political correctness. Remember when Some People (they know who they are) started spelling the word for a female human as "womyn," so as to remove it from the male-dominating "man"? Well, as it turns out, back in the good old Anglo-Saxon days, "man" referred to a person, regardless of their sex. Over time, distinctions began to emerge, giving us waepman for males (lit. "weapon-person") and wifman for a married female. Change happens over time, and wifman became woman. Guys lost half their word and just ended up with "man." Poor us.

The authors also touch on more charged language as well. For example, they recount the tale of a white city official who used the word "niggardly," meaning "stingy" or "tight with money" in a conversation about expenses. This caused a massive media storm because the word "niggardly" sounds really close to "nigger," a word that white people have to be really, really careful about using. For good reason, of course, but the fact is that "niggardly" and "nigger" are completely unrelated. The former goes back to old Scandinavian and the word "nygge," which meant a miser. The latter is a corruption of the Latin niger, meaning "black," which is turn gave us the Spanish and Portuguese "negro." Long story short (too late), that city official used the right word in the right context, but it wasn't a word that we let people use anymore. It's a a Fallen Word, joining other words and phrases such as "Call a spade a spade," "Rule of thumb," and "shyster." All of them have innocent origins, but have been inextricably linked with some of our worse human prejudices and practices.

I could go on. The point is that this book is a great pleasure to read, and will give you a fresh new perspective on the English language. It's non-academic, so you have nothing to worry about there, well-organized and just plain entertaining. More importantly, while it may not be able to prevent you grinding your teeth when you see "Ten Items or Less" at the local supermarket, you may be less inclined to try and strangle the manager.

Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,337 reviews135 followers
July 9, 2019
In this book, the co-authors, word mavens, and spouses Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman debunk many misconceptions about language expressions, pronunciations, and rules. Starting a sentence with a conjunction, splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions (that last one solely John Dryden's little caprice, apparently) — all irrelevant to how English has been used by great authors since the time of Shakespeare. The authors take particular delight in uncovering false etymologies, such as the myriad of fake explanations for "the whole nine yards" and the several ludicrous backronyms people invent to explain away words (as if a thousand years of Romance and Germanic ancestors wasn't enough to "explain" words). Sometimes the most questionable etymologies are the most fun: is ten-gallon hat so called form the Spanish expression tan galán, meaning "such a handsome man"? Probably not, but it's nice to think so. The authors even deviate from the language wheelhouse at times and bust some historical myths, such as the hoax that slaves sewed codes for runaways into quilts. As a mostly descriptivist myself, I have no argument with any of these instances of correcting the record, and some of it is rather entertaining, although I'm not exactly the target audience. The authors have done a great deal of research, and there's an interesting tidbit for everyone vaguely interested in this sort of thing.
Profile Image for Beth Cato.
Author 108 books488 followers
April 26, 2018
If you love language, you'll likely enjoy this book and the dry, gently humor it utilizes to explain word etymologies and controversies. I like how it used citations and quotes to back-up its corrective claims. The book is a bit dated by now, mostly due to the humorous references (iPods are soooo last decade), but the information remains solid. At least, for a few more decades. As the book points out more than once, English is a democratic and oft-evolving language.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,064 reviews697 followers
December 29, 2011
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 to enjoy skewering many long held rules and misconceptions about the English language. They reveal why some of grammar's best-known "rules" aren't-and never were-rules at all. They explain how Brits and Yanks wound up speaking the same language so differently, and why British English isn't necessarily purer. And in some cases they suggest following some rules simply to avoid negative judgments of others.

One of my pet causes regarding the language is to promote the acceptance of the use of the plural pronouns "they" to refer to technically singular words. This allows avoidance of the gender specific pronouns "he" and "she." The book agrees that for hundreds of years, people used "they", "them," or their to refer to people in general, whether one or more, male or female. They also admit that nobody seems to worry about the versatility of the word "you" which can be both singular or plural. Nevertheless, the authors are noticeably reluctant to accept the practice of using "they" for a singular pronoun as indicated in this quotation. "I'm not entirely satisfied with the alternative available, ..."

On the other hand the authors promote the splitting of infinities with reckless abandon. On that subject I'm a bit on the reluctant side, mostly because I'm afraid of what people people will think of me.

One thing I take from this book is that it's more important to be understood than to be correct. A good example of this is the difference between "inflamable" (combustable) and "unflamable (not combustable)." "Inflamable" is so widely misunderstood that caution warning signs can't use it. Another example is "disinterested" and "uninterested" (they're not synonyms).

Problems seems to start when a word starts being overused. An example is "hopefully." This book indicates that it has been used as an adverbial sentence modifier since the 40s with no objections. But in recent years its use has exploded, and the grammarians are up in arms as a result.

And so it goes, this book is filled with numerous discussions of language issues and figures of speech. It's an interesting read.

Now that English has become the de-facto international language in a world where the number of non-native English speakers outnumber the native English speakers, it can be expected that even more frequent changes and variations will occur in the future. I expected it to be an exciting ride.

Review from 2012 PageADay book lover's calendar:
A liberating and refreshing invitation to boldly split infinitives. And begin sentences with conjunctions. It was good enough for Shakespeare! Bold and witty, irreverent and highly convincing, Origins propounds above all the theory that “it’s better to be understood than to be correct.”
ORIGINS OF THE SPECIOUS: MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, by Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman (Random House, 2009)
8 reviews
March 27, 2011
"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 with the book, I felt, was that it didn't address enough of grammar pedagogy and its flaws.

What I wanted was a book that examined the origins of popular myths of common usage, and I got this--for a couple of chapters. But then the book inexplicably changes directions and focuses on "wacky word origins". True, many word origins have uncommon myths that surround them, but a book focused almost solely on these comes across as vapid. While I enjoy wordplay as much as anyone, this book has too much cute wordplay and too many puns, and not enough depth.

The final nail in the coffin is the afterword: after having built up a surprisingly and encouragingly tolerant view of grammar and usage for a self-professed grammarian, she then lays out all of her objections to her own thesis; i.e., that language change is natural and what is considered good grammar should reflect that. This final section consists of some words that she insists on retaining as is, disregarding the fact that she has just spent the entire book dispelling the myth that word meanings don't change! Upon arriving at the afterword, I was not convinced it was a great book, but entertaining at least--just different from my expectations. But negating the entire book in the afterword is ridiculous. Why write it in the first place?

In the future, I suppose I shall have to stick to buying books by linguists who are actually able to define and quantify what happens to and within language in meaningful ways. Those looking for a usage guide or a denouncement of overly-strict grammarians beware. While the book is entertaining at best, the afterword sadly negates what could've otherwise been an interesting book of language trivia.
Profile Image for Ross.
2 reviews
May 23, 2010
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 O'Conner begrudgingly admits that usage is changing on certain words (like "bemused", "ironic", "enormity", and "unique"), but can't let them go and urges the reader to "make a solemn pledge to use them correctly".

All in all, the blog "Language Log" is more informative, more entertaining, and free from the constant prescriptivist reminders, but this book might make a good gift for someone who insists on saying "octopi" or correcting your grammar, but who wouldn't be able to handle fully descriptivist arguments on the subject.
Profile Image for Smellsofbikes.
253 reviews18 followers
April 4, 2011
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 examines the history of contractions, words like decimate and fiery, and how inflammable came to its current lowly state, with scads of footnotes and references. Plus, it's funny and charmingly written.
Profile Image for David.
Author 26 books166 followers
April 15, 2016
A wonderful trip through the etymologies of error. This is a catchall book that examines the differences between British and American English; slips of the tongue [spoonerisms]; malapropism, and much much more.

It was enjoyable to read, informative without being pedantic, and surprising the number of things that native English speakers manage to screw up on a regular basis.

Highly recommended for English wonks and learners.

Rating 4 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Sandy.
154 reviews
August 4, 2012
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 they were farm machines) though nobody seems offended by these phrases but niggardly, which has a completely different etymology and means miserly, can cause all kinds of turmoil. Read on, and you'll find out the seemingly harmless verb to grandfather, as in to be exempt from a rule because you were on the scene before the rule came into effect, has its roots in the Jim Crow South and segregationists' sincere efforts to keep African Americans out of the polling stations.

The book is full of show-stoppers like these. English is an interesting, dynamic, democratic language. The correct usage, the authors tell us, is whatever most people think it is. Just give it time, and before you know it your fat dictionary full of words is pretty phat, too.
O'Conner and Kellerman take a look at the rules and show the reader that most aren't and the rest are subject to discussion because not so many centuries ago some Latinists tried to mess with the rules of our Germanic tongue. Bottom line: you really can't split an infinitive, prepositions can end sentences if they really want to, and the once-gender-neutral "he" was a woman's idea though not many women ever liked it much.

My friend who gave me the book told me it's a wonderful work to dip into and just find things that are interesting. She's right. Once I dipped here and there, I sat down and read the whole thing. I enjoyed it, and if you've read to here, you might, too!
Profile Image for Evanston Public  Library.
665 reviews60 followers
September 4, 2009
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 tool for settling arguments and putting a word bully in his or her place. (Note: According to O’Conner, it’s becoming acceptable to use “their” instead of the slightly awkward “his or her” as in the previous sentence. I can’t bring myself to do it yet, at least not in written work. Even knowing that Shakespeare and Jane Austen did it doesn’t make me feel good about it. But go ahead, dive right into the evolving rules of English, dump that clunky construction and don’t look back. You’ll be on the cutting edge of change.)

Etymology, the study of word origins, can be fascinating, especially in a word-rich language such as English, but if it’s presented in an up-beat, witty manner, it can be loads of fun. too. For fellow word nerds, I heartily recommend this book. (Barbara L., Reader’s Services)

Profile Image for ***Dave Hill.
1,012 reviews22 followers
January 30, 2015
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 that period. In many of those cases, it's not a matter of people being lazy with the language, but of people using definitions and spellings and connotations that were used before and since that time, often going back centuries.

3. While we may occasionally shudder at neologisms or changes in word meaning or usage or pronunciation, that's an aesthetic judgment, not an appeal to the Great English Language Gods. Language is how folk communicate, and English always has -- and always will -- be in a state of flux, with people adding new words and tweaking the old ones (and other people wailing and moaning and gnashing their teeth over it).

4. If you've heard a clever story about the origin of a word, especially if it's supposed to be from some clever acronym, it is almost certainly not true.

Fun, fairly lightweight, and educational. A good book for language lovers.
Profile Image for Diana.
223 reviews
July 19, 2009
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 be about blindly adhering to what we think are the rules; it needs to involve understanding where these rules and ideas come from so that we can make informed decisions. In short, any book that references the OED plenty, talks about all the big swear words, and agrees with my opinion on using "hopefully" is a good book!
2 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2009
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 the OED to correct common myths about the English language.

Origins of the Specious is a fun read. Recommended for language lovers everywhere who like to laugh.
Profile Image for Paul.
815 reviews44 followers
June 29, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Amanda Ogle.
5 reviews1 follower
April 4, 2014
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.
Profile Image for Katie.
16 reviews
November 10, 2009
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.
24 reviews
June 29, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Cris.
578 reviews20 followers
December 4, 2015
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.
Profile Image for Jim Razinha.
1,251 reviews61 followers
February 23, 2022
This book could not possibly not appeal to my confirmation bias. Disclosure: I've known for many years that Robert Lowth and his ilk are responsible for the unnecessary harm caused to grade school students all over the US - and probably elsewhere - when they tried to jam a Germanic language into Latin ... you can end a sentence in a preposition, have multiple negatives, and a host of other knuckle-rapping-thou-shalt-nots. Ms. O'Conner calls them out several times in this wonderful book. And much more.

Singular words that once were plural, plurals that were once singular, adverbs modifying whole sentences, origins of pronunciation, the drift between older modern British English (pre-19th century) and American English (turns out the New Englanders have been saying things right, with their dropped Rs...the Brits put them back in, ... and then lengthens their vowels (while doing their of dropping, syllabically that is.) She says "For one thing, we tend to use regular—and often older—past tenses (“burned,” “learned,” “spoiled,” “smelled”), while the British like irregular—and often newer—endings (“burnt,” “learnt,” “spoilt,” “smelt”). "

And grammar-Nazis abound, sometimes arguing both sides of the same infraction, because "English is often untidy, and we can find something in the disorder to support just about any position."

I like
It’s never been wrong to “split” an infinitive. That bogus rule is the most infamous member of a gang of myths that grammarians have been trying to rub out for a century and a half: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition! Don’t begin one with a conjunction! Don’t use a double negative! Don’t use “none” as a plural! Many of these don’ts were concocted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by overzealous Latinists in a misguided attempt to force English to play by the rules of Latin.
Yes!! Ms. O'Conner puts to bed peeves of mine, such as
The singular “octopus” comes from Greek and means eight-footed. The original plural, “octopodes,” was Anglicized over the years to “octopuses.” But in the mid-1800s some misguided Latinists (at it again!) tried to substitute the Latin plural ending -pi for the Greek -podes. It was an illegitimate idea that appealed to would-be pedants with weak classical educations.
I did learn a few things...
A lot of hot air has also been expended over “bloviate,” which the word police regard as an ugly newcomer. But the word actually originated in mid-nineteenth century Ohio, when it meant what it means today—to blather on pompously. It’s one of those humorous mock-Latin formations (like “absquatulate,” “discombobulate,” and others), and it blew in around the same time as “bloviator” and “blowhard.”
So Bill O'Reilly, Tucker Carlson, well...the whole "News"Channel entertainment cast, that apt term is more than 150 years old, as if anticipating you!

And, a new one for me, "A mondegreen is a misunderstanding in which a familiar song lyric, bit of poetry, or popular expression is misinterpreted or misheard." Now I know what to call the " 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy" unfortunate.

Anyway, now I want to read her other books.
Profile Image for E. C. Koch.
353 reviews19 followers
May 16, 2019
My guess is that if you've read a book like this that you've already ready this book. I'd also guess that even if you've already read all the other books like this that you'll still want to read this book. O'Connor doesn't provide a whole lot here that, say, Nunberg and Pinker and Hitchings don't already cover. Popular usage texts are few enough that the same anecdotes tend to get recycled and the same common mistakes tend to get addressed and the same judicious advice balancing the inevitability of change with a keen awareness of pedantry tends to get offered to more or less the same extent by the lot. If O'Connor is breaking new ground here then it's by addressing herself to common mistakes and mistaken beliefs that she regularly encounters via correspondence with other wordniks who usually cite solecisms and canards gleaned from the internet (the radioactive dump of grammar and usage). And so she hits on some language issues that were new to me (English's long history of the plural pronoun as a gender-neutral singular pronoun), as well as some that I've long (mistakenly) perpetuated ('til for till), and some that I knew already and never tire of hearing again (the car brand Jeep got its name from a Popeye character), but mostly attempts to correct the record on fallacious etymologies (which pretty regularly get started or gain momentum on the internet). Her attempts to be funny (to me) fall flat, and it's frustrating when a word or phrase's origin under discussion turns out to be unknown, but if you're at all interested in usage this is a fun read made no less so by being like all the others.
Profile Image for Tim O'neill.
261 reviews2 followers
December 19, 2022
Some of these chapters are great! If this were a weekly column, à la William Saphire’, I’d read it every week. Even as gradually as I read this, tho, they act got a little repetitive. It was always satisfyïng to see the authors skewer the mavens, but the tricks were basically “They’re wrong, that’s an incorrect etymology” or (less fun but more sciëtific) “They were right (maybe before they were born), but now they’re wrong.” And of course, as mostly descriptivist editors rather than working linguists, some of the time they would take a hard-line presriptivist stance.

The chapter about “Ain’t,” tho, is a masterclass in humorous (or at least droll) writing about language. I use it in my ESL classes, but that’s not really fair, as it’d so jokey I imagine it’d be hard for a non-native speaker to follow.
Profile Image for Vegantrav.
814 reviews176 followers
August 7, 2018
This is a good book for word nerds and people who love grammar, etymologies, and the idiosyncrasies of the English language. It is written from a descriptivist perspective, so grammar fascists and linguistic pedants will probably hate this book: it doesn't label various usages as proper or improper but simply looks at how English speakers actually have used in the past and continue to use the language. Prescriptivists, then, will not find this book to their liking, but for almost anyone else interested in how the English language and specific words and usages have evolved and developed over the past thousand or so years, this is a very entertaining and educational book.
Author 2 books5 followers
June 25, 2022
An ideal bathroom book, and not just because it's primarily concerned with how full of shit most of the etymologies we think we know are. It's a light, fun read that can be opened randomly to any of the 60+ short entries and enjoyed. The authors cover our misconceptions about "correct" pronunciation, slang, idioms, slurs, foreign misappropriations, and more. From a linguistics perspective, it's a descriptivist's wet dream. And if you understood that reference, this is probably a great book for you to read.
158 reviews
January 6, 2018
An interesting look at the history of our language, Origins of Specious examines the incorrectness of Latin influences to some of our constructions, like how we should never end a sentence with a contraction or split an infinitive to research on the entomology of certain words. As a word lover, a logophile, I find some blows O’Connor delivers against the essence of my soul, but in most aspects, I agree with what she and her counterpart decide.
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2,882 reviews54 followers
June 22, 2018
Simone, Central patron, June 2018, 4 stars:

A fun journey through the twists and turns of the history of the English language. Learn more about how and why the British and Americans are separated by a common tongue as well as other interesting etymology.
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90 reviews3 followers
January 4, 2018
Very interesting to read. Taught me some stuff I was wondering about and more.
Could have been more in-depth but then it would probably be less amusing to read.
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541 reviews8 followers
June 27, 2019
This was an absolute pleasure to read. If you are a language-nut or and an etymology enthusiast, this is a must-read.
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208 reviews
July 30, 2019
Content had Interesting bits but the writing style was not for me.
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