Sam Ang's Reviews > Red Herrings and White Elephants

Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack
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really liked it
bookshelves: dictionary-and-lexicon, language-learning, non-fiction
Recommended for: language learner

The full review is available in the following link:

What does either a Red Herring (a false or misleading clue) or a White Elephant (something useless, usually pointing to public buildings, that becomes a burden, much like our country's facilities...) has anything to do with their respective meanings? Just as the foreword of the book implied, such sayings are part and parcel of the everyday English and most native speakers are familiar with them, seldom giving them a thought.

Tracing the phrases to their origins is hard work but Jack's effort revealed that most of them originated from interesting, if not unexpected, sources. Not all of the provided sources and origins are clear since most of them have evolved over the years, with their roots lost in time. In cases which the root is ambiguous, the author is nice enough to mention that, bringing up the most plausible, and in some cases the funniest, origin which he thought most likely.

It is interesting to note that most of the sayings do not even originate from the English language, and are cobbled up from Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, French, Swedish, Norse (when it's raining cats and dogs or when someone went berserk), Hindustani (when someone has gone Doolally), Jewish (when you tell someone to eat his heart out) and even Gaelic (when you declared something as phoney), just to name a few.

I believe reading this book is a better way to learn the language rather than memorizing them until your brain could take no more. Pick a few of them and try to use them in your everyday conversation, if only to amuse your English speaking counterparts. You may even surprise them with a few which are rarely heard of.

Teachers of the language, especially one teaching ESL (English as a Second Language), would benefit from the book as well. At the first sign of boredom your class shows in an English course (you should be able to notice the blank looks and nodding heads), swipe Red Herring and White Elephants out and start to ask them why certain phrases are so.

Choose the most ridiculous ones or ones which meaning is almost unrelated to its phrase (I think none will catch more attention than 'to swear on your testicles'). Entertain them with the origin and its story, and watch your students swarm to your class with expectation on the next class. That will drill the language into them better than any other method.

Having said that, do be careful of using the phrases found within Red Herring & White Elephants on everyone you converse with. Some of the phrases will sound a little ridiculous, and may sound offending, especially if your listener is not familiar with it, which most likely is the case in Malaysia. However the reader could always share the phrase with native speakers of English to see if they are amused, enlightened or pleasantly surprised by you uttering it like you had spoken it all your life.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
February 1, 2012 – Finished Reading
June 18, 2012 – Shelved

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