Book Reviews: Dog Days and Dandelions & Coined By God

This month we take a look at two new trade etymology books, Dog Days and Dandelions by Martha Barnette and Coined by God by Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain. Both are well-written, well-researched works that look at the origins of words connected with a specific topic. But both books suffer from a common defect of etymology books, organization by alphabetical order, a defect that makes what could have been interesting topics that shed light into how English creates and adopts words and turns them into volumes of etymological trivia. Both books are fine works for what they are, but one is a bit disappointed when one considers what they could have been.

On the surface, one might think that alphabetical order would be a natural arrangement for books on etymology. After all, that is how dictionaries are organized and it makes finding individual words quick and easy. But while alphabetical order is appropriate for comprehensive reference tomes like dictionaries, it is not the best format for other works. Alphabetical order masks common themes and patterns of etymological change. Other formats sacrifice the ease of looking up a particular word or phrase, but this is easily addressed with an index.

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American Dialect: African-American Speech

Our study of American dialect cannot be solely based on regional differences. While regional distinctions are perhaps the most significant influences on the way we speak, other distinctions play a role as well and one of these distinctions is race and ethnicity. For most ethnic groups, patterns of speech are quickly assimilated into the local speech, becoming indistinguishable from the regional dialect, except perhaps for some specific cultural terms.

But African-American speech is different in that it transcends regional differences. African Americans have distinctive patterns of speech that are recognizable regardless of region. That is not to say that there are not regional differences among African Americans, but the similarities in the dialect across the nation are strong.

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Words of the Month: Military & Navy

The United States and Britain are deploying large numbers of soldiers, sailors, and airmen to the Persian Gulf. The United States and its allies are gearing up for another war with Iraq, so the words of the month are Military, adj., pertaining to soldiers, from the Latin miles or soldier, 1585, and Navy, n., a fleet or force of warships, from the Latin navis or ship, c. 1330.

We will take a look at some of the words that are used by and about the military, some official, some slang. Most of the technical or official terms dealt with here relate the US military. The definitions used by foreign militaries may be somewhat different and foreign militaries may employ synonyms for the words discussed here.

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Book Review: Weird and Wonderful Words

Weird and Wonderful Words by Erin McKean is a fun, little book for those who delight in rare and odd words. If you ever wanted to know what jumentous means, this is the book for you (it means “resembling horse urine"). Or perhaps you were wondering about quangocrat? If so, McKean’s book will tell you it is a British English word for a petty bureaucrat who works at a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization, or quango.

Now, this book and the words contained therein are not useful in any sense—unless you actually live a lifestyle where you might actually use the word jumentous, in which case I really do not want to know about it. The words are too obscure even for crossword puzzles. They most definitely are not kenspeckle (easily recognizable). Weird and Wonderful Words is strictly for fun.

The book is illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. She provides many ostrobogulous (unusual, interesting) drawings to illustrate various uses of the words.
If you like odd words, you could do worse than picking this book up. Who knows, it might help you increase your scibility (power of knowing).

Hardcover; 144 pages; Oxford University Press; October 2002; ISBN: 0195159055; $16.95.

[Note: Erin McKean was my editor at OUP for Word Myths.]

Prescriptivist’s Corner: Confusing Word Pairs (Part II)

Here we have another installment of confused word pairs. These are words that, while they look similar, have distinct differences in meaning or usage and are often used improperly. Again, our favorite loan shark, Vinnie “The Squid” Calamari, takes us on a tour of how to use these words correctly.

Affect/effect. As a noun, the word that you almost always wants is effect. The noun affect is only used in psychological jargon. As a verb, affect means to influence, while effect means to bring about or accomplish. Vinnie effected the change in his collection policy, which positively affected the bottom line.

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