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.

In Dog Days and Dandelions logophile Martha Barnette, editor of www.funwords.com, examines the origins of some 300 words that have their roots in animal names and terms, many quite surprising. For instance, few would suspect that helicopter has as one of it roots the Greek word for wing, pteron, also found in pterodactyl and apteryx, or that sleuth is a clipping of sleuth-hound, another word for bloodhound. Other words in the book are more obviously animal-related, leviathan, cowslip, and shrewd for example.

Beyond the straight etymological origins, which in most cases could be discovered by looking in a dictionary, Barnette goes beyond etymology to place the words in historical context. She not only tells us that the word tuxedo comes from P’tuksit, a name for a tribe of Delaware Indians that means wolf-footed, but she also gives us a brief history of the formal wear. In gerrymander, derived from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry and salamander, she gives us a brief look at the American system of political apportionment and the artwork of Gilbert Stuart. These contextual additions provide interesting tidbits of information for the reader and are perhaps the book’s chief attraction.

In the entry for doggerel, Barnette mentions how dogs have been held in low regard throughout history and this is reflected in such words. But it is with comments like this that we see the flaw in alphabetical organization. If the book had been organized thematically, such insights could be explored in more depth. A comparison of different “dog” words, for example, would be very interesting, but the alphabetical organization militates against such analysis. Another organizational option would have been to arrange the entries chronologically, to trace how borrowings and coinages reflect changing views of animals over time. Similarly, a chapter on Linnaean taxonomy and how the Latin scientific names for animal species are determined would be interesting. The alphabetical format reduces the work to a book of trivia when it could have been so much more.

Coined by God, by Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain, is a similar book, albeit on a very different topic. Malless and McQuain examine 130 words and phrases that first appear in early English translations of the Bible, notably the Wycliffe (1382), Tyndale (1525), Coverdale (1535), Geneva (1560), and King James (1611) Bibles. These versions of the Bible cover one of the greatest periods of change in the English languageā€”the shift from Middle to Modern English. Wycliffe was a contemporary of Chaucer and the King James (Authorized) Bible was written during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The impact these translations had on the English language is difficult to overestimate.

Malless’s and McQuain’s entries include both the prosaic (liquid, Ezekiel 44:30, Wycliffe) and the poetic (stranger in a strange land, Exodus 2:22, Tyndale), religious terms (Passover, Exodus 12:11, Tyndale) and the mundane (the verb to brain, Isaiah 66:3, Wycliffe).

Coined by God goes beyond simply presenting the words and phrases and their origins in Scripture. Malless and McQuain also trace the use of these words into the modern era. They discuss, for example, pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26, Tyndale), which is used as the title of a Shirley Jackson short story and ministry (Ezekiel 44:13, Wycliffe), which is used in Coleridge’s poem “Frost at Midnight.” Not all the modern uses are literary. The authors frequently cite pop culture references that use the Biblical words, such as the Rolling Stones 1968 song Salt of the Earth (Matthew 5:13, Wycliffe) and the use of treasure (Isaiah 39:6, Wycliffe) in the 1977 finale of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. This tracing of use of the words and phrases in literature and popular entertainment through the years shows the impact and significance that these Biblical terms have had.

But again, the alphabetical format militates against some of the analysis and comparisons that could have been done. Organizing the entries by translation, for example, instead of alphabetically would permit an analysis of the relative contributions each translation had on the English language.

Although Malless and McQuain do take some steps to overcome this problem. Many of the entries discuss how the words and phrases are translated in the other versions. For example Tyndale coined scapegoat in Leviticus 16:8, but Malless and McQuain discuss how the earlier Wycliffe Bible used “goat that shall be sent out” for the same passage. The book includes several indices organized by different principles, one organized by translation (cross-referenced to the books of the Bible) and the other by books of the Bible (cross-referenced by translation). Other back matter includes a chronology of Biblical translations that is helpful in placing the translations in historical context.

Both Dog Days and Dandelions and Coined by God are accurate, solid presentations of the etymological information related to their respective topics. Both also provide additional information, Barnette interesting tidbits of information on related subjects and Malless and McQuain leaning toward a more literary bent with information on how the words and phrases have been used since their Biblical coinages. But one cannot help wondering that if they had been organized differently, they would have been so much more.

Dog Days and Dandelions, by Martha Barnette; Hardcover; 200 pages; St. Martin’s Press; February 2003; ISBN: 0312280726; $24.95.

Coined by God, by Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain; Hardcover; 221 pages; W.W. Norton & Company; February 2003; ISBN: 0393020452; $23.95.

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