Can’t think of a better book for word lovers than Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, the memoir of a lexicographer (that’s a writer of dictionaries) for Merriam Webster. She takes us through the silent editors’ office (no phones, no chatter), the delightful duty of Reading and Marking (yes, she is paid to read, 8 hours a day! but that’s mighty active reading, hunting for suitable citations), the enormous task of updating the definitions of mundane words that no reader will likely check (hers was “take”; imagine that), the duties of pronunciation specialists (not her), and the unexpected email campaigns against this word or that. It’s fun and just a little worrisome for the future: now that dictionaries are online, and free, who will write them?
Tag Archives: language
Linguists are interesting folks who love the smell of dictionaries… I’ve always loved dictionaries, from the first illustrated children’s dictionary my parents gave me when I could barely read (cute light blue polka dots on the cover!) but I cannot say that they smell any different from any other books. John McWorter can, and in Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally) he shows off his knowledge of arcane languages including Saramaccan and Kham, to show that the much-hated use of “like” of teenagers is completely normal and even has a name, “modal pragmatic marker” (now who uses ugly language, teenagers or linguists?) In another chapter, he demonstrates our meanings change over time, and have always done so, to the horror of contemporaries and full acceptance of later generations. The least successful chapter for me was the one about vowel shifts, which is greatly hampered by the spoken word and would benefit from a podcast rather than the written word. The rest is pure fun for word lovers.
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World is a just-for-fun book that should live on a coffee table, inviting amateurs to open it and nibble on a word or two. Reading it from cover to cover, as I did, makes it hard to appreciate the words that the author wishes would exist in English, but it shows two interesting themes: one is measurement, surprisingly. It may seem silly to speak of the time it takes to eat a banana (pizanzapra, in Malay) or the amount of water one can hold in one’s hand (gurfa, in Arabic), but I love the idea. If I could remember pizanzapra, I would definitely use it.
The other theme, not surprisingly, is behaviors and feelings. My favorites were tsundoku (leaving a book unread after buying it, piled up with other unread books, in Japanese) and nunchi (the subtle art of listening and gauging another’s mood, in Korean). I could see ways of using all the words in the book, except the puzzling mångata, which means the road-like reflection of the moon in the water in Swedish; do you feel you need a word for that?
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is an awkward combination of a memoir of a former copy editor of the New Yorker and discussions of grammatical errors and confusions, one of which gave its name to the book. I enjoyed the autobiographical tidbits, especially the curious career path of the author, starting with her first job as a teenager checking that public pool bathers properly used the footpath before swimming , a job delivering milk, her entrance at the New Yorker via the typing pool, and the politics of the copy-editing department.
I did not enjoy the grammatical discussions, and before you hasten to think that I’m just a barbarian who does not care for grammar, let me disclose that I happily listen to a weekly grammar podcast, a behavior my family seems to think is rather odd. But the fussy arguments of the book went too far to sustain my interest — between you and me…
Once upon a time, a couple or few decades ago, most American boys and girls in grade school were taught grammar and punctuation; we learned, for example, that “i” came before “e,” except after “c” (except sometimes, but never mind) and that the verb “to be” was “like an equal sign,” which meant that you used the nominative case (have I lost you yet?) on both sides of it. (“It is I,” in other words, is the correct, if dowdy, response to “Who’s there?”) Some of us were even taught to diagram sentences; some had parents who corrected us at the family dinner table. (I can still hear my father pressing the subjunctive upon me. “If I WERE,” he’d bellow, when I allowed as how there’d be later curfews if I “was” in charge.) Whether they retained the lessons or not, most people probably don’t wax romantic about the grammar lessons or teachers of yore.
Which is why even those of you who don’t have the soul of a second-grade grammar teacher will love Between You and Me, the hilarious and delightful “memoir” by the longtime New Yorker copy editor, Mary Norris, who confides in the subtitle that she is a “comma queen.” (The above is not a full sentence, I know — but I think I can get away with it by calling it “my style.” Also, I put quotation marks around the word “memoir,” Mary – I know you’re wondering — because I was trying to make the point that your book is an unusual take on the form, dealing as it does with thats and whiches as well as with your Ohio adolescence as a foot-checker at the local pool.) Who knew grammar could be so much fun — that silly marks of punctuation could be so wickedly anthropomorphized (a question mark is like a lazy person), that dashes grow in families (there are big dashes and little dashes and they can all live peaceably within one sentence), that there was once a serious movement to solve the he-or-she problem with the catchall “heesh”? Clearly, Norris knows: her book is plenty smart, but it’s its (one’s a contraction, one’s a possessive) joyful, generous style that makes it so winning. This is a celebration of language that won’t make anyone feel dumb – but it’s also the perfect gift for the coworker you haven’t been able to tell that “between” is a preposition that never, ever, takes an object that includes the pronoun “I.” –
Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story talks about the origins of the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet, but much, much more, as the author covers topics as varied as lost letters (thorn, anyone) and letters we don’t really need (think “y”); spelling and dictionaries, of course, but also cyphers and postal codes (Britain’s codes are letter-based), even the now-extinct pleasures of Letraset, which will bring happy memories to people old enough to remember it!
Very enjoyable for word lovers.
I love books about language, and Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation did not disappoint. I especially enjoyed the quotes from outraged grammarians, especially those who manage to contradict their dictums (dicta?), as well as the long lists of hated words from the past, which include such now completely accepted nouns as lunch and photo.
What I did not like so much is the recurring insistence that whatever is in usage is fine and that we should not worry our little heads with grammar (even if, often, it would help clear up why often-used turns of phrase are, in fact, incorrect). For instance, I don’t see why we would not be expected, as English speakers, to know what a restrictive cause is, and therefore be able to use which and that properly…
Language: The Cultural Tool is really a vendetta against Chomsky and his idea of a built-in grammar, curiously similar to that of Western languages. The author spent years living with an Amazonian tribe with a very peculiar language and draws on his experience to conduct the discussion. The anecdotes and lessons from the Pirahas are wonderful; the learned disputes less so. But overall the author does a masterful job of showing that language is absolutely shaped by culture and that learning another language, even less strange than Piraha, requires an understanding of how the speakers live.