The Bookshelf: Miscellany X.

The review copies have been accumulating, so it’s time once again for a language book roundup!

1) Women Talk More Than Men … And Other Myths about Language, by Abby Kaplan. The author explains her approach on the second page:

First, it is about popular beliefs about language: the conventional wisdom on topics from linguistic sex differences to the effects of text messaging. Sometimes, of course, popular opinion has things more or less right –- but it’s more interesting to examine cases where ‘what everyone knows’ is wrong, and so we will put a special focus on debunking language myths. […]

Second, this is a book about how to study language — not in the sense that it will train you to do linguistic analysis for yourself, but in the sense that it provides a glimpse of the kinds of things linguists do.

The chapter titles are myths, like “A dialect is a collection of mistakes” and “Chimpanzees can talk to us,” and she does a splendid job of debunking; there are a lot of academic references and statistics, which may put off some people, but in a field chock-full of books with little beyond hand-waving and obiter dicta, it’s a welcome corrective. For a fuller discussion, see Stan Carey’s review. This is a fine book that I would recommend to anyone interested in language.

2) The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, by John Simpson. The former chief editor of the OED describes his experiences with it and provides a great deal of intriguing lexical information along the way. In discussing the decision to have the full text keyed manually rather than being scanned, he says “it transpired that there was no company in Britain big enough and courageous enough to take on the job”; the bold indicates that the word will be treated separately, and on the next page there is a two-and-a-half-page discussion beginning “In the mid- to late eighteenth century, the verb to transpire caused no end of arguments between otherwise healthy individuals” and continuing with an exemplary and funny analysis of how the meaning shifted, including the parenthetical “(should you be the sort of person who finds things ‘wrong’ with language).” As you can tell from those quotes, the author is lively company, and anyone interested in the OED will want this book.

3) Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally), by John McWhorter. The aim of this compact, readable book is laid out in the introduction:

In the wake of conclusive discussions of these grammar rules, such as many of David Crystal’s publications and, most recently, Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style, there is little need to dwell on them further. This book will focus on something larger, in a way, than that compact collection of grammatical no-nos: the general sense that when English is morphing along in any way (new accents, new meanings) we are seeing not transformation but disruption. I want to propose a sunny (and, frankly, scientifically accurate) way of hearing the speech around us, as a substitute for a view of English as a collection of words embalmed between the covers of dictionaries.

If you’re in the market for books like this, you’re probably already familiar with the genial McWhorter and his pleasantly colloquial style; this has some good (if often familiar) examples and a healthy attitude toward language change and usage.

And finally, a couple of books on one of my favorite topics, bad language:

4) What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, by Benjamin K. Bergen. The publisher’s blurb says:

In this groundbreaking yet ebullient romp through the linguistic muck, Bergen answers intriguing questions: How can patients left otherwise speechless after a stroke still shout Goddamn! when they get upset? When did a cock grow to be more than merely a rooster? Why is crap vulgar when poo is just childish? Do slurs make you treat people differently? Why is the first word that Samoan children say not mommy but eat shit? And why do we extend a middle finger to flip someone the bird?

And the book lives up to that description. It’s got charts showing unacceptability levels for bad words in New Zealand, England, and the US; one illustrating the fact that “People rate made-up words as more profane when they have more consonants, either at the beginning of the syllable or at the end” (“deeve” is felt to be worse than “dee” and “smurb” than “smurr”); an illustration showing one dog labeled “LUCK” and another labeled “FUCK”… oh, it’s a lot of fun, and scientifically sound too!

5) In Praise of Profanity, by Michael Adams. I’ve reviewed books by Adams before (Slang: The People’s Poetry in 2009 and From Elvish to Klingon in 2011), and I’ve come to find him a reliably interesting author; as I said in that first review, he thinks clearly and writes vividly. He quotes graffiti (“NoticeI will suck off 2 boys’ (over 16) cocks next Sunday”), Miss Manners, Jesse Sheidlower (another LH favorite), the poetry of William Dunbar and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (“Whence rows of mandrakes tall did rise,/ Whose lewd tops fucked the very skies”), and the comedy of Sarah Silverman. He ends with a coda about the excellent word clusterfuck as discussed at a conference banquet at Pembroke College, Oxford: “We concluded that it’s just about a perfect word structurally; it’s perfect just in the aesthetics of its form.” If that sounds like the kind of thing you like, or someone you want to give a present to would like, you can’t go wrong with this delightful book.


  1. I sometimes wonder about McWhorter. Didn’t he write a book some years ago about Those Darn Kids and their darn Rap and how it’s ruining the language? I haven’t actually read it, so I hope I’m mistaken.

    Just an hour ago I picked up a copy of C. C. Bombaugh’s Odditeies and Curiosities of Words and Literature, originally published in 1896, annotated by Martin Gardner and republished by Dover in 1961. A grand collection of word-play, soaked in piety.

  2. Looking for the Bombaugh that Y referred to, I found another book he co-authored, Stratagems and Conspiracies to defraud Life Insurance Companies:

    “[These] may be grouped under certain general heads: Counterfeited Death; Pretence of Death under the forms of forged certification, false personation, and fictitious substitu tion; Speculative and “Graveyard” Insurance; Mysterious Disappearances, with their inferences and presumptions; Poi soning and other forms of Homicide; Deliberately Planned Suicide; Problematical and Disputable Appearances; Perplex ing Identification; and Self-Mutilation in Accident Insurance. This classification comprehends only those actively aggres sive forms of fraud which contemplate speedy realization of the atrocious end in view, and which, therefore, are broadly contradistinguished from less tangible sorts of imposture, such, for instance, as material concealment or misrepresentation in the answers recorded in the application.

  3. In response to the Bergen reference: My father had a major stroke, after which he was unable to talk. He was in a coma for about a month. My mother used to go every day and talk to him for an hour. However, she found it hard to come up with an hour’s worth of conversation, so she used to read to him from the things he was reading before his stroke. This would be The Economist and books about economics and political science. After a month he came out of the coma. He didn’t really respond much to these readings, except one time he yelled “Shut up!” at her. Those were this last words, although he lived several months after that.

    He used to sometimes respond to conversation by moving his lips, but there was no sound. My mother tried a lip reader but they couldn’t get anything. I did a bit of research, and a number of brain areas are involved in producing speech, and if any one of them goes out, you get nothing. We had no way to tell if he could understand us and was trying to respond, or if he was just going through some kind of social ritual behaviour. The doctors said he had major brain damage.

    He loved classical music, so we brought a radio in to his hospital room and tuned it to the classical station. My wife sang Schubert to him, which seemed to make him happy.

    Interesting about that last “Shut up!”. He was quite an intellectual before his stroke, but I’m guessing he was not able to process what she was reading and found it frustrating. He also had no response to written material or pictures of things, like cards that people sent him. However the classical music, and when I told him I was using the stereo setup he had installed in his car, seemed to get a response.

    There’s a lot still to be learned about the brain.

  4. I sometimes wonder about McWhorter.

    He’s a frustrating guy. He’s got a way with words, is a professional linguist, and conveys important basic information that people need to learn, but he’s frequently wobbly on details and given to triviality. He falls into the “I’m glad he’s there, but I wish he were better” category.

    maidhc: Thanks for that story, and yes — a lot to be learned.

  5. Deeve is not a very good wug-word for this purpose, because deeve is to deviant as perv is to pervert, so it carries built-in imprecatory implications.

  6. ‘Deeve’ to me means pester or annoy, although usually in the form ‘deeved with’, which is tending towards fed up.

  7. Famous last word (only it isn’t, quite, because the Count [Aral Vorkosigan] recovers):

    The Count only tried to speak once more, on the hurtling trip [to the hospital]; he clawed his mask away to say, “Spit,” which the medic held his head to do, a nasty hacking which cleared his throat only temporarily.

    The Great Man’s last words, thought Mark blackly. All that monstrous, amazing life dwindled down at the end to Spit.

    —Lois McMaster Bujold, Mirror Dance

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