Holiday Shopping List

As last week’s article on black Friday and cyber Monday attests, we are now into the holiday shopping season. If you’re wondering what to get that word maven in your life (or if you’re looking to treat yourself), here are some suggestions for books that may fit the bill. All prices given are list price and you can find most of these for significantly less

Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, By David Wilton

All right, if you haven’t bought this by now, for shame. What’s stopping you. Get copies for all your friends.

Do you “know” that posh comes from an acronym meaning “port out, starboard home”? That the whole nine yards comes from (pick one) the length of a WWII gunner’s belt; the amount of fabric needed to make a kilt; a sarcastic football expression? That Chicago is called The Windy City because of the bloviating habits of its politicians, and not the breeze off the lake? If so, you need this book.

Word Myths debunks the most persistently wrong word histories, and gives, to the best of our actual knowledge, the real stories behind these perennially mis-etymologized words. In addition, it explains why these wrong stories are created, disseminated, and persist, even after being corrected time and time again. What makes us cling to these stories, when the truth behind these words and phrases is available, for the most part, at any library or on the Internet?

Arranged by chapters, this book avoids a dry A-Z format. Chapters separate misetymologies by kind, including The Perils of Political Correctness (picnics have nothing to do with lynchings), Posh, Phat Pommies (the problems of bacronyming—the desire to make every word into an acronym), and CANOE (which stands for the Conspiracy to Attribute Nautical Origins to Everything). Word Myths corrects long-held and far-flung examples of wrong etymologies, without taking the fun out of etymology itself. It’s the best of both worlds: not only do you learn the many wrong stories behind these words, you also learn why and how they are created--and what the real story is.

Hardcover; 240 pages; Oxford University Press; December 2004; ISBN: 0195172841; $23.95

Yale Book of Quotations, by Fred R. Shapiro, editor

This extensive and extremely well-researched book of quotations by Fred Shapiro contains over 12,000 quotations from a variety of sources. It not only includes the usual literary quotes found in such collections, such as T.S. Eliot’s:

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

But also quotes from popular culture, such as this one by Tupac Shakur:

California love!
California?knows how to party

And from sources like advertising slogans:

I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” (Alka Seltzer)

As is the usual practice in such collections, the quotes are arranged by author with a key word index in the back matter. Each quotation includes a source, often quite specific and sometimes surprising. For example, we all recall the quote, but who remembers that this famous line was uttered during remarks on an after-school child-care initiative in January 1998:

I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

Every good library should have at least one good quotations reference, and the broad mix of quotations makes the Yale Book of Quotations an excellent choice.

Hardcover; 1,104 pp; Yale University Press; October 2006; ISBN: 0300107986; $50.00

Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, by Grant Barrett

To give you a flavor of exactly what “unofficial English” is, this book is subtitled A Crunk Omnibus for Thrillionaires and Bambots for the Ecozoic Age. Crunk is hip hop slang for good, dating to 1995. A thrillionaire is a rich person who has dangerous hobbies, think Richard Branson. It dates to 1998. A bambot is a crazy person; it’s from Scots, a variation of barmpot, and dates to 1988. And the Ecozoic is an imaginary future where we live in harmony with nature. It was coined in 1991 by Thomas Berry. (In case you’re wondering, omnibus doesn’t rate an entry in the Official Dictionary. An omnibus is a book that contains works published previously elsewhere.)

Barrett, until recently a lexicographer at Oxford University Press, collected most of these words as part of his web site the Double-Tongued Word Wrester ( Most of the words are of recent vintage, but you get the occasional term that is relatively old, like fairy ring.

The coverage ranges from standard jargon like hot wash, a military term for an after-action review, to the whimsical, like Bark Mitzvah, a 13th birthday party for a dog.

The Official Dictionary is a historical dictionary, in that it includes usage citations for each entry, making it particularly valuable for the serious slang researcher. If it has a drawback it is lack of comprehensiveness, with only some 750 entries it is far from the only slang reference you will ever need. But those 750 entries are pure gold. Great stuff, both for the scholar and for those who merely wish to be entertained by fun words.

Paperback; 288 pp; McGraw-Hill; May 2006; ISBN: 0071458042; $14.95

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