Review: What Made the Crocodile Cry?

It’s a rule that anyone who writes about language must produce at least one book of short articles about quizzical and anomalous facts about language—the bathroom reader. I don’t know why, but every writer about language has to do it. This time around, the writer in question is Susie Dent and the book is What Made the Crocodile Cry?: 101 Questions about the English Language.

Dent’s entry into the genre, as those familiar with her annual Language Reports would expect, is a solid one. She poses and then answers questions about language, etymology, grammar, dialect, and so on. In addition to the title question about the phrase crocodile tears, she asks: Why are spare ribs spare? What is the longest word in English? Why do we call hooligans yobs? And so on. The answers are a few paragraphs long and well researched. A few of the topics, like the aforementioned yobs, address British English, but the book is not so parochial that Americans and English speakers from elsewhere in the world will be put off.

My only complaint about the book is how she treats that most notorious of four-letter words. In the answer to the question, is bloody still a swear word? Dent writes, “the fact that we encounter f***, for example, with such frequency seems to have shaken little of the power it has held for over 500 years.” And in the question about the Oxford comma, she notes the lyrics to the song Oxford Comma by the group Vampire Weekend, “who gives a f*** about the Oxford comma?” If you are going to write commentary about swear words, you need to be able to write those words without bowdlerization. If you can’t write fuck, don’t bring the word up. 

If you like this sort of book, and judging by the way that publishers keep churning them out evidently many people do, this is a good choice. It’s eclectic, entertaining, and informative.

What Made the Crocodile Cry?: 101 Questions About the English Language
Susie Dent
Hardcover; Oxford University Press
$18.05

(Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book. Oxford University Press is also the publisher of my book, Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Additionally, if you click through the links and make a purchase, I receive a very small referral payment from Amazon.com.)

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