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,, 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.

Word Spy starts out with a brief opening chapter on how words come into existence, an excellent overview of the topic that provides the theoretical underpinnings for understanding the rest of the book. But after this brief introduction, McFedries dives into the heart of the subject with twenty-one more chapters, each dealing with one aspect of our culture and the neologisms we have coined associated with it.

The chapters run the gamut of modern, post-industrial culture. McFedries gives us, for example, one on advertising, one on fast food, another on the dot-com boom and bust, and one on baby boomers. Each chapter is further divided into sub-sections that contain the neologisms. The chapter on activism includes terms like green collar worker (professional environmental activist), Frankenfood (genetically modified agricultural product), techno-strike (electronic attacks on the computer systems of an offending company or organization), lactivist (an advocate of breast feeding), and, of course, NIMBY (acronym for Not In My Back Yard, descriptive of activism aimed a preventing a socially important, but locally undesirable, institution or activity from setting up shop in one’s neighborhood).

The chapter on relationships and marriage treats us to fleshmeet (a face-to-face meeting of a group that knows each other from the internet), batmobiling (erecting emotional defenses before a relationship becomes intimate), bridezilla (a bride-to-be who in her eagerness for the perfect wedding becomes intolerable), and postmortem divorce (a stipulation that one is to be buried separately from one’s spouse).

The chapter on the modern workplace shows us cube (a semiprivate workspace), prairie dog (a verb meaning to stick your head above the walls of your cube out of curiosity for what is going on outside), ego wall (a wall hung with awards and photos of the employee with famous people), virtual office (a employee or business with no fixed address, operating with mobile phones and laptops), and corridor cruiser (an employee who spends his day going from one meeting to another).

Punditocracy (the collection of political commentators), theocon (a member of the religious right), push poll (a means of advertising by asking loaded questions in the guise of a pollster), and trial balloon leak (revealing a planned policy in an attempt to gauge popular support while maintaining deniability) are all dealt with in the chapter on politics.

Most of these terms come with usage citations and the book is indexed, making it a useful reference in years to come.

While all of them are recent coinages, most of the terms in the book were probably obsolete when the book was published, if they ever had wide currency in the first place. Such is the nature of slang in our accelerated culture. But that doesn’t mean that they are not fun to read about.

If only more word books were like Word Spy. McFedries has given us a well-researched book, yet one that is readable and fun. Nor does it fall into the trap of alphabetic organization—which is useful for reference books, but makes it difficult to see relationships and patterns in the words and phrases. Any word lover is going to enjoy this one.

Paperback; 432 pages; Broadway Books; February 2004; $15.95.

The second of our books is Words to the Wise: A Lighthearted Look at the English Language, by Michael J. Sheehan. This is a collection of questions and answers about words and language that Sheehan has been asked and has answered on his weekly radio program of that name. The program airs on WTCM in Traverse City, Michigan. The author is a retired professor of English.

Sheehan’s topics are from the entire spectrum of language and linguistics. He answers etymology questions, ones on usage, spelling, grammar, style, writing tips, and just about anything relating to language. His answers are brief, a paragraph long or two at the most.

And unlike some books of this nature, the answers in Words to the Wise are well-researched and based on a solid foundation of scholarship. Sheehan doesn’t fall for the linguistic urban legends that many others do and he is not afraid to say that the answer is unknown. His responses are brief, but correct. Where he is prescriptivist, his advice is sensible and recognizes that language changes and that a writer shouldn’t be straitjacketed by the past.

If the book has a drawback, it is a lack of organization. There are no chapters or sections. The book is simply a long string of questions and answers. This is enjoyable as an eclectic potpourri, but can be frustrating if you are trying to find a particular answer. Sheehan does, however, provide an index.
All in all, this is the ultimate in commuter reading. Keep a copy in your car for those moments when you are waiting for someone. The bite-sized Q&A are perfect to fill those wasted moments.

Paperback; 240 pages; Arbutus Press; May 2004; $15.00.

Our third and final book is Is That What It Means?: A Treasure Trove of Word Origins, by Max Oppenheimer. In many ways this is similar to Sheehan’s book above. Oppenheimer is also a retired university professor, this time a professor of foreign languages, and the book is a collection of articles that originally appeared in another format, here articles that originally appeared in a language column in the Sun City, Arizona Daily News and in Arizona Senior World. Oppenheimer’s articles are longer form than Sheehan’s, typically two pages each.

The book is more focused than Sheehan’s, dealing almost exclusively with etymology. Oppenheimer’s research is solid, at least when he sticks to straight etymology. His etymologies are well-researched and he makes some interesting associations between seemingly unrelated words. His ability to address cognates in a wide variety of languages is novel. Few are experienced in enough languages to attempt this consistently, and in this respect the book is particularly valuable.

It is where he strays from straight etymology into the wider realm of linguistics that Oppenheimer runs into trouble. He is clearly a fluent speaker of many languages, but he does not have a good grasp of basic linguistic theory (not surprising for a foreign languages professor, whose focus would be on grammatical instruction and literature). He is not a linguist and it shows. He occasionally delves into criticism of linguistics that he clearly does not understand. He also betrays a prescriptivist and curmudgeonly bent now and again. Fortunately, these incidents are few and the bulk of the book is solid.
Still, this is a minor flaw and Is That What It Means? will make a welcome addition to any summer reading list.

Paperback; 222 pages; Sunflower University Press; February 2004; $15.95

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