Book Review: Rosemarie Ostler’s Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers

Rosemarie Ostler’s Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers: A Decade-By-Decade Guide to the Vanishing Vocabulary of the Twentieth Century has been sitting on my shelf unread for many months. Purchased long ago with the intent to review it here, I just never got around to it. When I finally pulled it off the shelf I was delighted in what I found. This is a real gem of word books.

Ostler focuses on obsolescent and obsolete words and phrases, terms that are associated with a particular era. It is a compendium of American culture seen through the vocabulary of the times. Each chapter of Dewdroppers deals with a decade of the 20th century and the words and phrases that are associated with that period.

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Word of the Month: Alcohol

Usually our word of the month is linked thematically with a current or historical event or holiday that occurs during the month in question. This is not the case this time. Instead we selected a subject arbitrarily and that subject is alcohol, n., a class of compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, specifically ethyl alcohol, an intoxicating liquid; from the medieval Latin, ultimately from the Arabic al-kuhul. The Arabic word referred to powdered antimony, used in cosmetics; applied in English to mean any powder produced by sublimation (1543); later applied to any distilled product (1642); finally to distilled liquors (1753); the specific chemical sense is from 1850.

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Book Review: Geoffrey Nunberg’s Going Nucular

This month we review a book that could have been included in last month’s “Summer Reading” review list (except I hadn’t finished reading it at that time).

It is Geoffrey Nunberg’s Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times. Nunberg is a professor of linguistics at Stanford and the book is a collection of his radio commentaries on language that he gives regularly on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.

Going Nucular comprises some sixty-five short essays on language and usage. The essays were all delivered on the radio during the period from 2001 through 2003 and many deal with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 and how we altered our use of language to describe the attacks and their effects. (Nunberg includes the date the essay was delivered on the radio. This allows the reader to associate the topical subject with the appropriate period. One only wishes that other authors of compilations, like William Safire, would do the same.) Individual essay topics include the history of the word appeasement, use of the word Gallic and French bashing, the use of the language of courtly love in business writing, whether infidel is used appropriately to translate from the Arabic, and, of course, the pronunciation of nuclear.

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Prescriptivist’s Corner: The Subjunctive Case

The Prescriptivist’s Corner is back after a hiatus. This month, we are addressing one of the most misunderstood aspects of English grammar, the subjunctive mood. A mood is a form of a verb that affects the meaning of a sentence. English has three moods, the indicative, the imperative, and the subjunctive.

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Sprechen Sie Fraulein?

The Langenscheidt publishing group, a leading German dictionary publisher, plans to publish a guide it says will help men translate the subtexts of female conversation. The guide is written by comedian Mario Barth, famous for his stage show Men are Pigs…but so are Women.

Langenscheidt, best known for its yellow foreign language dictionaries, will launch sales of a 128-page book to translate such baffling female banter as: “Let’s just cuddle” into “No sex tonight please!.”

“Each themed chapter offers men behavioral tips and exposes hidden messages transmitted by women in everyday situations, such as on holiday or during shopping trips,” said Silke Exius, chief editor at Langenscheidt.

Other examples in the German-Woman/Woman-German “dictionary” due out in October include explaining why a woman asks a man to take interest in the pair of shoes she may be trying on.

She wants him to look because he’s about to pay for them.

Word of the Month: Labor

In the United States, the first Monday in September is Labor Day, a day to celebrate and reward the achievements of the American worker. The holiday was originally proposed by the labor movement in 1882. In 1884 the holiday was moved to the current place on the calendar and it received its first government recognition by municipal governments. In 1887, the state of Oregon became the first to declare it an official state holiday. By 1894, 24 states and the federal government had recognized the holiday.

In honor of the holiday, our word of the month is labor, n.; physical exertion that supplies the material needs of the community; the body of people who provide this work. The term is from the Old French and originally meant simply physical exertion, a sense that survives today. The first sense listed here dates to 1776 when it was first used by Adam Smith. The use referring to the collective body of workers dates to 1839.

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Book Review: Summer Reading List

This month in our book review section we take a look at three books that will make for some interesting summer reading. All three address word origins and all three consist of bite-sized sections that make for good commuter reading.

The first is the most interesting of the three, Paul McFedries’s Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to Modern Culture. An offshoot of his excellent web site, www.wordspy.com, this is a book about neologisms and slang terms that denote the new facets of our ever-changing world. From accelerated culture (rapid cultural change) to wine porn (magazines and literature written for wine lovers), McFedries takes us on a linguistic excursion through our culture.

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Word Watch: “Washington Read”

One term that is is gaining some ground among those in government circles is the Washington read, the practice of standing in a bookstore and skimming the index of a new, tell-all book for references to yourself, instead of reading or buyrng the whole book.

Richard Armitage went so far as to admit to the 9/11 panel that he has given it “the Washington read"—i.e., he looked himself up in the index and then read “what was said about me.”
—“Womb It May Concern” by Sam Schechner, Slate.com, 26 March 2004

For power-readers, the “Washington read"—a perusal of the index and some corresponding text—has offered a shortcut some won’t admit to.
—“Making the List” by Ellen Gamerman, Baltimore Sun, 28 June 2004

Anyone who gave Clinton’s hefty book the Washington read (that is, a quick skim of the index pages) quickly discovered that Clinton made several mentions of Bossie.
—“You can’t teach an old attack dog new tricks,” by Eric Boehlert, Salon.com, 20 July 2004

Word of the Month: Olympic Games

On the 13th of the month, the Olympic Games open in Athens Greece. It will be the 25th time the games have been held since the Olympics were revived in 1896. (Although it is the 28th modern Olympiad; three of the games were canceled during the two world wars.) In honor of the games and the athletes competing in them, our word of the month is Olympic Games, n.; originally games contested in honor of Zeus, held on the plain of Olympia in Greece every four to five years; the ancient games were first held ca.776 BC until they were abolished by Roman Emperor Theodosius in 394 AD; in modern use to denote the games established in 1896 by Baron de Coubertin.

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Book Review: Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation:
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

The idea that a book on proper punctuation would rocket to the top of the bestseller charts is ludicrous. But the cliché says that truth is stranger than fiction, and indeed, such a thing has happened. As I write this review, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is number two on the New York Times bestseller list and has been on the list for ten weeks. It is number three on the Amazon.com sales list. Compounding the strangeness is that the book is British and has not been edited to reflect differences in American punctuation. The book has achieved similar commercial success in Britain.

Longtime readers who know of my descriptivist bent may be surprised to hear this, but I was rather eagerly looking forward to the American debut of this book. I have long held that punctuation, along with related rules about capitalization, spelling, and spacing, are the traffic signals of the written word. They serve to make reading easier and the writer’s meaning clearer. As such, standardization is highly prized. This book, however, does little to aid this goal.

Even more amazing is that this book is not a particularly good book on punctuation. It is not organized to be a useful guide or reference. Its jokes, of which there are many, are mildly amusing at best, often simply feeble, and always smarmy and smug. Truss provides no conceptual underpinning for the rules she promulgates, simply stating that these are the rules and that’s that. And she and her editors commit the sin of sins for a prescriptivist tome, it is filled with “errors” and violations of the very rules it advocates.

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