Ill-informed authors of popular books on language: your favourites
Posted: 06 June 2012 02:02 AM   [ Ignore ]
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We’ve talked about Swaim, Bryson and Truss.

What other popular but clueless authors on the topic of language would be on your personal slap-on-sight list?

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Posted: 06 June 2012 03:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The epitome of bad language scholarship has got to be Daniel Cassidy, who for years churned out utter falsehoods about Irish origins of English words. He had a PhD and a teaching position somewhere (presumably he wrote enough good stuff to get tenure, then went off the deep end), so he had the credentials to be taken seriously by the media and general public. I’d slap him, but he died a while back.

But I think there are relatively few writers who consistently get it wrong and continue to write about language. Bryson is the only other one that springs to mind, and he isn’t “clueless,” just a hapless and sloppy researcher. And he gets stuff wrong in a wide variety of categories, not just language.

Truss has only written the one book, as far as I know. And I’m not sure if I’d slap her or toast her marketing genius. (I’d probably slap her and toast the marketing department of her publisher.)

Most of the others are like Joan Acocella, who weigh in with a single utterly clueless piece, but then never write about language again.

And there are few who continually churn out dreck about language, but pretty much no one reads them, so they’re not worth a slap.

(Note that the Queen’s English Society folded this week because of lack of interest. No one stepped up to take on any of their officer positions.)

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Posted: 06 June 2012 10:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Note that the Queen’s English Society folded this week because of lack of interest.

Not entirely because of that. I belonged to the QES for a number of years; but an internecine war broke out among the leading members, based partly on principle but certainly driven by personalities. There were Extraordinary General Meetings, calls for resignations, inflammatory mailings to members, you name it. The whole thing got so painful and depressing that I just let my subscription lapse and walked away; it would surprise me to learn that I was the only one.

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Posted: 10 June 2012 11:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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The most astoundingly awful usage manual I know is The Penguin Dictionary of American Usage and Style by Paul Lovinger.  He both repeats the usual blather and merrily grouches about people breaking rules he just made up.  So far as I know this was Lovinger’s one shot and Penguin has shown the belated good judgment to let it go out of print, but there is a Kindle edition, in which I expect it will live a perpetual shadowy existence. 

The champion for overall body of work is still, even some four decades after his heyday, John Simon. The collection Paradigms Lost is the ne plus ultra of ignorant language bitching.  The only current writer who comes close is Robert Hartwell Fiske.

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Posted: 10 June 2012 12:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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In the Christmas-stocking-filler class, Red Herrings and White Elephants: The Origins of the Phrases We Use Every Day by Albert Jack is a hot contender.

Among the phrases unequivocally given false origin stories in it are:

have your chips
on the fiddle
keep at bay
flog a dead horse
bite the bullet

et cetera.

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