Oxford University Press has been sending me review copies of its language-related books, and they’re starting to pile up, and the gift-giving season is approaching, so I figured it was a good time to start letting y’all know about them. I’ll start with a few, then continue in a later post.
OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, by Allan Metcalf, is a thorough investigation of the history and uses of a great American lexeme. The author, a professor of English and Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society, starts with the humble origin of the term in an 1839 column in the Boston Morning Post (“He.. would have the ‘contribution box’, et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward”), as discovered by the great scholar Allen Walker Read almost half a century ago, and shows (following Read) how it was part of a craze for jocular abbreviations such as I.S.B.D. (“it shall be done”) and R.T.B.S. (“remains to be seen”); he points out that “these initialisms are not so different from those used in internet chat today,” though back then it was combined with a fad for humorous misspellings (there was an O.W. for “all right” as well). Then the presidential election of 1840, in which the initial letters of Old Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren’s nickname, were used as an electoral slogan, combining with the preexisting slang term in usages like this: “We acknowledge the receipt of a very pretty gold Pin,… having upon it the (to the ‘Whigs’) very frightful letters O.K., significant of the birth-place of Martin Van Buren, old Kinderhook, as also the rallying word of the Democracy of the late election, ‘all correct’… Those who wear them should bear in mind that it will require their most strenuous exertions… to make all things O.K.” And then there was no stopping it. Metcalf discusses hoaxes, false origins (no, it’s not Choctaw, as I once gullibly reported), and its use in business, literature, and other areas, as well as its spread around the world. Fun and educational!
Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, by David Crystal. I’m a fan of Crystal’s (I loved his edition of Fowler), and he does a good job here investigating (and trying to quantify) the influence of the Authorized Version on the language. He’s well aware that “Much of the memorable linguistic distinctiveness of the King James Bible in fact originated in Tyndale,” and he uses Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale’s Psalter, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, and Douai-Rheims as points of comparison. His preface ends: “We find biblical expressions appearing in such disparate worlds as nuclear physics, court cases, TV sitcoms, recipe books, punk rock lyrics, and video games. Those are the worlds this book will explore.” Speaking of music, I have to register mild outrage at his citing Boney M’s Eurodisco version of “Rivers of Babylon” rather than the great original by the Melodians, but there’s no accounting for taste.
Short Cuts: A Guide to Oaths, Ring Tones, Ransom Notes, Famous Last Words, and Other Forms of Minimalist Communication, by Alexander and Nicholas Humez (brothers who have collaborated on other language books—the surname is pronounced hyu-MAY) and Rob Flynn (a computer industry writer); the subtitle gives an idea of the kind of material covered, and it’s full of etymological information like (in the “In and Out of Trouble” chapter, discussing parking tickets) “A ticket was originally a stick: Old French estiquet—whence etiquette—was a Germanic borrowing originally meaning a branch or switch stuck in the ground as a target for practice shots but later taking on the meaning of ‘note, label’ and random nuggets like (in the Police Blotter section, quoted from the Ellsworth American) “A suspected dead body in the Penobscot River June 27 turned out to be a blue bucket.” Ideal to keep around for those occasions when you don’t have time to immerse yourself in anything but want a quick informative nibble. (Full disclosure: I copyedited the book and am thanked in the acknowledgments.)
Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology, by Jonathon Keats (author of Wired‘s “Jargon Watch”), examines how techie words get coined and why some (like blog) succeed while others (like flog, a “flack blog” by marketers that pretends to be by ordinary people) fail. I was won over by the discussion of w00t, which cites Grant Barrett’s essay on the word’s history, deriving it from two 1993 dance songs, and discusses the “fast and furious” response from gamers (for whom “it was self-evident that w00t belonged to leet, a semi-encrypted form of English that evolved on Internet relay chat and bulletin board systems in the 1980s”) and Barrett’s thorough counter-response.