Book Review: Damp Squid

Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare; Jeremy Butterfield; Oxford University Press, December 2008; $19.95.

Butterfield’s Damp Squid is an exploration of linguistics and lexicography for the layperson. It’s light and entertaining, but at the same time addresses how professional language researchers go about their business and in so doing explodes some of the misconceptions people have about our language.

If there is a negative criticism of the book it is that it lacks a coherent, overall theme. It has an overall topic, that of explaining what linguists do, but not a theme. But this isn’t too serious a criticism; the book is effective as a potpourri of linguistic information. This value is reinforced by the style of short essays and frequent use of inset boxes, lists, and diagrams that keep the reader’s interest. This is not a book for in-depth examination of the state of English linguistics, but for the casual word lover it is instructive and fun.

The book’s chapters address the following topics, which show the breadth of the subject material that Butterfield is covering:

  • Introduction: an explanation of corpus linguistics
  • Size matters: how many words in the English language?
  • Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English: etymology
  • Beware of heard: why spelling varies?
  • Which is to be master: the importance of context in meaning
  • Words of a feather: word groupings, what words are found with other words
  • Cats and dogs: idioms
  • Grammar that can govern even kings: what is grammar?
  • Style wars: pet peeves about language
  • Epilogue: a brief historical overview of dictionaries

For the casual word lover or for someone just getting interested in linguistics and language, this is an excellent choice. Those engaged in a more serious pursuit of language study can probably skip it.

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