Book review: ‘Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue’, by Jonathon Green

June 17, 2014

Just as culture has its counterculture, so language has its nonconformist, outsider self. Why it’s called slang is an enduring mystery to etymologists and lexicographers, but the elusiveness only adds to its intrigue.

Much of slang by its very nature goes unrecorded, or at least did so before the internet turned half the world into quasi-publishers. This makes tracking the history of slang a real challenge – how do you flesh out something that never had a proper skeleton to begin with?

Enter Jonathon Green, aka Mister Slang, whose new book Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue provides a sturdy history. (Its publisher, Atlantic Books, kindly sent me a copy for review.) Language! is a thoroughly engaging account of slang’s development from the early days of criminal cant to the broader current-day incarnations stemming from our cities’ subcultural and multicultural vernaculars.

Born in the street, it resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent, mocking, unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies. It is a subset of language that since its earliest appearance has been linked to the lower depths, the criminal, the marginal, the unwanted or even persecuted members of society. It has been censored, ignored, shoved to one side and into the gutter from where it is widely believed to take its inspiration and in which it and its users have a home. It remains something apart, and for many that is where it should stay.

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Book review: ‘Odd Job Man’ by slang lexicographer Jonathon Green

March 19, 2014

Chambers Slang Dictionary by Jonathon Green is my usual first stop for slang queries and browsing, because it’s the biggest such book on my shelf – size matters in lexicography – and also the best. A quote on the spine says, “Dr. Johnson would have moaned with delight”, and while I could live without the thought of Samuel Johnson making pleasure-noises on my shelf, the sentiment holds.

2010 saw publication of the eponymous Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume behemoth based like the OED on historical principles, giving slang the deep scholarship it deserves – and more than it has ever received before. Green has since updated thousands of its entries in his database, but since GDoS might not see a revised print edition, I only hope it goes online. [Edit: it has done, for subscribers.]

Green’s life and work are the twin topics of his new book Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer, kindly sent to me for review by Jonathan Cape in London. It aims “both to demystify ‘the dictionary’ and to give some glory to slang, one of language’s most disdained of subsets.” These modest aims it achieves, and then some: this is a belter of a book.*

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Book review: ‘Phubbing All Over The World’ by Hugh Westbrook

January 13, 2014

Phubbing All Over The World: The Words of 2013 is a book by Hugh Westbrook about the neologisms and usages that made headlines in the last 12 months. Over 100-odd short pages, Westbrook repurposes posts from his blog Wordability to tell a story of 2013 in word news – with particular focus on the influence of technology, as in the phubbing of its title (from phone + snubbing).

Westbrook is a journalist who tracks and analyses innovative vocabulary. He is generally well-disposed towards new words, recognising them as signs of a language in good health. His approval isn’t universal, though: he disapproves of Thanksgivukkah and charity-inspired blends like Dryathlon and Stoptober. (I don’t see any harm in them, incidentally – nor the “idiocy” he sees in the Movember event.)

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Book review: ‘Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?’ by Steven Poole

December 9, 2013

Of all the varieties of English criticised for degrading the language, one is deplored so routinely it’s practically an international pastime. Call it management speak, business jargon, bureaucratese or corporatese, the shifty locutions and absurd metaphors of office lingo receive a constant barrage of disdain.

Such jargon has its uses, of course. It can be efficient, creative, even genuinely evocative. But more often this brand of self-important communication (or in some cases anti-communication) irritates and provokes, warping and clouding ideas in ways that are at once cynical and ridiculous, as Dilbert repeatedly shows. And the takeaway across the piece is that office jargon will keep circling back, going forward.

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Book review: ‘For Who the Bell Tolls’ by David Marsh

October 9, 2013

For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection is a new book by David Marsh, production editor of the Guardian and editor of its style guide and language blog. The ironic title and tension with the subtitle will give you an indication of the contents and tone: serious yet light-hearted, personal but universal (sort of). It makes for an interesting balancing act, and to Marsh’s credit he pulls it off.

Structurally the book is a mixum-gatherum of analysis and advice covering grammar and language usage, both general and in the particular domains of journalism and the internet. Over 280-odd pages it covers a lot of ground, owing to Marsh’s plain, direct style and talent for concision. There is also pleasure in its easy humour: this is a funnier book than is usual for the field.

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Book review: ‘Shady Characters’ by Keith Houston

October 1, 2013

Shady Characters - secret life of punctuation - Keith Houston - US book coverOne of the better looking books to land on my desk lately is Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. Its contents, I’m happy to report, live up to the promise of its stylish cover.

Shady Characters builds on the author’s blog of the same name, taking readers on a hugely entertaining journey down the backroads of typographical history. As well as the familiar family of dashes, commas and other stops, it puts us on intimate terms with the lesser-seen pilcrow (¶), at-symbol (@), octothorpe (#), interrobang (‽), and irony marks, among others.

It also documents in satisfying detail my new favourite mark, the manicule (☞), or pointing hand:

If a reader’s interest stretched to a few lines or a paragraph, a manicule’s fingers could be elongated to bracket the required text; in some extreme cases, inky, snake-like fingers crawl and intertwine across entire pages to indicate and subdivide relevant text in a horror-film parody of the hand’s physical form. Very occasionally, manicules were not hands at all; in one fourteenth-century Cicero [...] a five-limbed octopus curls about a paragraph, and in a seventeenth-century treatise on the medicinal properties of plants, tiny penises point out discussions of the male genitalia.

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Book Review: The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics

September 5, 2013

Every serious field of study deserves a satirical wing, and linguistics is blessed in this regard with Speculative Grammarian, a journal some say is now centuries old. SpecGram, as it’s known to fan and foe alike (and they often are alike), lately drew on its formidable archives to produce The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics, a copy of which I received for review.

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