Book review: The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri

George Orwell’s famous essay on the politics of language, strained and self-contradictory as it is, rests on the incontestable idea that people manipulate language for political ends – whether it’s to prod something improper towards legitimacy or to dodge responsibility for interpersonal shortcomings. The political, after all, is personal, and language is as personal as it gets.

The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri (Em Dash Group, 2018) shines a welcome light on such language in its social guise and dissects it for our pleasure and occasional squirming. A slim volume expanded from its original 2003 edition, the EED packs considerable insight and wit into its 132 pages, showing how we routinely choose (and avoid) certain words to massage the truth, let ourselves off the hook, and passive-aggressively get our own way.

Balistreri is harsh on small talk, preferring to banish it if it does not lead swiftly to more substantial communication. Her prescriptions can be dismissive: like as a discourse particle is ‘worse than mindless’ – a judgement that overlooks its pragmatic utility. But the book takes on subtler and more worthy targets. The perennial scapegoating of technology, for example, she neatly torpedoes:

Technology doesn’t make me do anything, it lets me do anything. It enables me to see someone face-to-face and it spares me from seeing someone face-to-face. It lets me connect or avoid. . . . Half the people in my life have never used a keyboard. They aren’t necessarily better at conversation than the rest of us are.

'The Evasion-English Dictionary' by Maggie Balistreri - book coverThis discussion comes in the chapter making = letting, which then offers a series of choice examples: ‘Social media is making us become self-obsessed narcissists’; ‘The availability of online shopping is making people shop less in brick-and-mortar stores’. Inviting us to replace one word with the other – the evasive with the evaded – is a fun way to illustrate and reinforce the point.

This structure, repeated throughout the book (along with fuller taxonomies of the more versatile words actually, like, so, sorry, and whatever), makes lets us focus on a particular expression and become sensitive to its shabbier applications. In doing so we may, with a wince, recognise our own occasionally unwholesome use of it, or that of a friend or colleague.

Other equivalences astutely analysed include feel = am (‘I hate when I do that. I feel so disloyal’); but = because (‘I’m behind on all my projects but I don’t like to stress out about it’); sensitive = insensitive (‘I think it’s so great that you volunteer. I couldn’t do it. It would make me cry. I’m too sensitive’); and should = won’t (‘Oh, you’re a poet? Yeah. You know, I really should read more poetry’).

These are all common, unassuming words, and all the slipperier for that. They are, as Balistreri puts it:

the mainstays of speech that can go unexamined, those throwaway words by which we reveal what we mean, no matter how hard we try not to.

In hoping to ‘inject a little self-consciousness’ into our everyday discourse, her book succeeds in sharp and entertaining fashion. You can order The Evasion-English Dictionary from your preferred source via Balistreri’s website.


[Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book.]


18 Responses to Book review: The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri

  1. galtz says:

    Never more true than today.

  2. maceochi says:

    This looks like an absolutely brilliant read Stan (albeit a bit short! Only 132 pages!) I’m going to try and track it down in a local library.

    An unrelated topic which for some reason came to mind when reading this is the deliciously subtle differences that prepositions make. “My wife was very good to me” (= she let me drink as much I wanted) vs “my wife was very good for me” (= she stopped me drinking and put me on the straight and narrow).

    • Stan Carey says:

      I hope your library can help you out, Ian. It’s a short but invigorating read.

      Prepositions carry a lot of weight for their size. I notice this especially when editing or proofreading text from non-native-English speakers, for whom prepositions can be extremely tricky and misleading.

      • maceochi says:

        I couldn’t find it in a library, but I ordered it online from Blackwell’s of Oxford. I was pleasantly surprised by how cheap the P&P was, by the way. I’ll definitely be going back to it in future, rather than

        • Stan Carey says:

          It’s just out this month – probably too soon to appear in libraries. I avoid Amazon (and have done so for two decades), so I’m glad it’s available through other sites.

  3. languagehat says:

    Man, you are a lot more tolerant and benign than I am. When I got to the part about how “Balistreri is harsh on small talk, preferring to banish it if it does not lead swiftly to more substantial communication” and “like as a discourse particle is ‘worse than mindless’,” I would have tossed the book aside with a vividly worded remark about idiot peevers and never looked back.

  4. Joe McVeigh says:

    I haven’t read the book (yet), but from what you say, Stan, it seems Balistreri is a bit lost on the nuances of semantics. Surely “should” does not mean “won’t” in a phrase like “You know, I really should read more poetry”. Doesn’t it mean something more like “I would like to read more poetry and I’m not ruling out the possibility that I will read more poetry”, while “won’t” means (almost) strictly (“I have already decided that I will not read more poetry”. It seems like Balistreri is putting words in people’s mouths. And what is she implying with the idea that “but” = “because”? Is my preference to not stress over being behind on my projects the *reason* that I’m behind on my projects? It sounds to me more like someone is saying “I’m behind on my projects (for some other reason than the fact that I don’t like to stress out about being behind on my projects) BUT (here is some additional information about me,) I don’t like to stress out about being behind on my projects.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Joe: Yes, she is essentially and explicitly putting words in people’s mouths, if only by implication in the particular method she uses. When she suggests that “I really should read more poetry” really means “I really won’t read more poetry” in the example provided, that’s exactly what she’s getting at. The speaker has no intention of reading more poetry, but they leave open the possibility in their discourse with the poet. This may be for politeness’ sake, or because they like to think of themselves as poetry-readers even if that’s an inaccurate perception.

      “I’m behind on all my projects but [read: because] I don’t like to stress out about it” presents a similar deception. The speaker is behind at work because they’re too relaxed, but they flip the logic so that they can imagine they’re behind at work for reasons unknown or unstated, while claiming or believing not to mind.

      • Joe McVeigh says:

        Thanks, Stan. That clears things up a bit. Although I think I’ll still have to read the book. I’m still confused about how broad or narrow Balistreri is being. I mean that naturally some people use “should” instead of “won’t” in that situation because of politeness or some self-evaluation, but is Balistreri saying that whenever people say “I should X”, they really mean “I won’t X”? Same goes for “but/because” – does “but” always = “because” in statements like “I’m not where I should be with X-task, but/because I’m too relaxed to do it”? The whole thing seems much more dependent on who is speaking than on what words they’re using; more pragmatic than lexical. Maybe that’s always the case in language? Maybe we don’t need to open that can of worms… :)

        But thanks for the review and for putting this book on my radar!

        • Stan Carey says:

          It’s absolutely dependent on the speaker and circumstance. There’s no implication in the book that ‘should’ always means ‘won’t’ or that ‘but’ always means ‘because’, and if my review gave that impression, it’s my fault. Balistreri’s tongue is often in cheek, and some of her prescriptions are aimed primarily at herself. The book is generally humorous and not intended as a usage manual or a regular dictionary.

          • Joe McVeigh says:

            No worries, Stan. Thanks for clarifying. I’ll take part of the blame for inferring things wrong. And all of the blame for not understanding :)

  5. Deb Kean says:

    Although you don’t gree, I think she’s right about like! It annoys me greatly, both as a filler (Australians do that a lot) or as a subsitute for as or as if, which most young New Zealanders and Americans seem to have never heard of!

    • languagehat says:

      And that would appear to be the point of the book — to give aid and comfort to people who like to complain about other people’s use of their own language. Again, I am surprised this is something Stan approves of.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Like has been used in place of ‘as’ or ‘as if’ since Chaucer, though today, as the American Heritage Dictionary notes, the usage has ‘a somewhat informal or conversational flavor’. Jespersen reported it in the prose of Keats, Emily Brontë, Thackeray, George Eliot, Dickens, Kipling, Shaw, and others.

      In a previous post about like as a conjunction (and as as a related hypercorrection), I wrote that it ‘grew in popularity in the 19th–20thC, after a period of relatively low use, and this probably fuelled the backlash’ – which unfortunately continues today. There’s really nothing wrong with it.

      • Deb Kean says:

        My problem with it is that it’s ubiquitous and here in New Zealand has completely replaced as, giving rise to some very odd constructions! “The same dress like she was wearing” which sounds like some kind of pidgin to me but was said by an ‘educated’ upper-class lady about a cocktail party!
        Of course I know language evolves, I work in the area, however when it evolves in the direction of ambiguity and confuses my students, I tend to put much less stock in American dictionaries and American dialect than I do in practicality.

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