Book review: ‘Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries’ by Kory Stamper

March 21, 2017

Dictionaries occupy a unique cultural space straddling invisibility and authority. Those of us with a keen interest in words, be it professional, hobbyist, or obsessive to the point of mania, now and then ponder the mystique of these works of reference. Who writes them? What drew them to the work? How were they trained? Who decides what to include? How, exactly, do dictionaries come to be?

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, answers all the questions you might care to ask a lexicographer. It casts a coruscating light on the never-ending work of a dictionary – ‘a human document, constantly being compiled, proofread, and updated by actual, living, awkward people’ – and also, necessarily, on words themselves in all their strange, slippery wonder.

Each chapter in Word by Word is named after a word that serves as a base from which Stamper explores deeper, broader issues of lexicography and of the English language, such as its history, politics, and essential mutability. For example, ‘Irregardless: On Wrong Words’ examines variety in English negation and the social status of dialects. Stamper’s initial aversion to irregardless, this ‘harbinger of linguistic doom’, softens through exposure and investigation to the point where she becomes ‘America’s foremost “irregardless” apologist’.

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Book review: Dent’s Modern Tribes, by Susie Dent

February 7, 2017

Jargon and slang get a bad press. In the right contexts, though, they serve an important communicative purpose, at the same time allowing users to express their identity as part of a community – and to have fun with language while doing so.

Any specialised activity accumulates its own vocabulary, born of the particular actions, situations, equipment, and people involved. These lingos occasionally leak into other domains, or even the mainstream, but for the most part they remain more or less constrained or hidden, niche terminologies available only to the tribes in question.

susie-dent-dents-modern-tribes-the-secret-languages-of-britain-book-coverIn her new book Dent’s Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain, Susie Dent presents a host of these distinct lexicons for wider appreciation. As well as being a lifelong word lover, Dent is an unabashed eavesdropper, ear always poised for scraps of idiosyncratic interaction. That method, combined with straight-up interviews and chats, has yielded a wealth of material from a great variety of human professions and hobbies: cab drivers and cricketers, actors and anglers, soldiers and spies, roadies and ravers, firefighters and freemasons, teachers and (of course) trainspotters – dozens in all, each a rich source of verbal codes and curiosities.

These lexicons bundle history aplenty. For example, ever since Churchill, as UK home secretary, gave black-cab drivers the right to refuse a fare while eating, cabbies have referred to a meal as a Churchill. A slow period for taxis is called kipper season, ‘apparently from the days when cabbies could only afford to eat kippers’. Other terms are derived from more immediate sources: among cabin crew members a slam-clicker is, echoically, one who ‘goes straight to the hotel on landing and doesn’t emerge again until it’s time to leave’.

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Book review: Abby Kaplan: ‘Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained’

August 14, 2016

Humans are highly prone to cognitive bias. We habitually make bad judgements and draw unreasonable inferences from the available facts. These tendencies lead to many myths that persist in popular culture, and our beliefs about language show the power, prevalence, and persistence of such myths.

We may believe, for instance, that dialects are substandard English, or that texting harms teenagers’ literacy, or that women talk more than men. This last myth gives the name to an excellent new book of popular linguistics by Abby Kaplan, a linguistics professor at University of Utah: Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained. Cambridge University Press kindly sent me a copy for review.

The book has 11 chapters, one myth per chapter. Each is structured logically, like a textbook, starting with an overview of popular ideas about a topic, comparing them with what linguists have found, and finishing with a conclusion, summary, bibliography, and so on. The bulk comprises a careful case study aiming to resolve a key question: Can animals talk to us? Are some languages more beautiful than others?

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Book review: But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?

July 20, 2016

Editors are necessarily a fussy lot. We hunt typos, errant commas, and assorted orthographical aberrations and inconsistencies with the industry and pleasure of a bumblebee in a high-summer meadow. And if we’re any good at it, we consult authorities – often. Because we know (oh, how we know) what assumption is the mother of.

For academic writers and editors, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is one of the biggest and best authorities, especially for US English. Even here in Ireland, I check CMOS often and with great regard. (After years of frequent use, editors become intimately familiar with style guides: our feelings for them are not always friendly.)

The team behind CMOS run a monthly Q&A for subs, proofreaders, writers and the stylistically uncertain. Many queries can be resolved by reference to the relevant section in CMOS, though at 1026 pages it can take some digging, while others are more esoteric puzzles that offer no obvious solution. The editors’ answers are clear and helpful, as you’d expect, but they’re also sometimes… sassy. Snarky, even.

And now there’s a book, But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?, a selection from the Q&A. (Its publishers, University of Chicago Press, kindly sent me a complimentary copy.) The foreword is by Carol Fisher Saller, who is responsible for many of the As in the Q&A and whose book The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd edition, I reviewed recently.

but can i start a sentence with but - chicago style q&a book coverSaller and her colleagues are a fount of level-headed sense, and it’s manifest throughout this short book. On the very first page we read: ‘In style matters, there are often competing options, all acceptable.’ This, as you may imagine, is music to my ears. Page 2: ‘When consistency gets silly, you can rebel.’

These are solid maxims of the editing trade, yet they are unknown to some professionals who assume there is always a Right Way and who sacrifice sense and compromise clarity to avoid deviating from a rule, however trivial. So it’s reassuring and constructive to see editorial flexibility upheld and indeed stressed by so august an arbiter.

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Book review: The Subversive Copy Editor, by Carol Fisher Saller

June 28, 2016

One of the books I found most helpful when I began freelance editing was Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor. Unlike style guides and other trade references that editors consult more or less daily, Saller’s book focuses not so much on how to copyedit as on ‘how to survive while doing it’.

I’m happy to report that The Subversive Copy Editor was recently published in a second edition. Two chapters longer and noticeably heftier, it still falls well under 200 pages: you’d zip through it in a day or two. It’s full of solid advice on such aspects of the job as managing deadlines, handling pressure and difficult clients, improving your computer use (e.g., filing, word processing), and email etiquette.

It also offers clear and practical guidance on the nuts and bolts of editing. For example, it explains the benefit of reviewing your queries to an author before you return their text:

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Book review: ‘Word Drops’, by Paul Anthony Jones

April 14, 2015

If linguistic trivia is your flavour of the month, there’s a treat in store for you. Speaking of which, did you know the first thing to be described as having a flavour of the month is ice cream? This inconsequential yet pleasing fact is one of many to be found in Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones, aka Haggard Hawks.

The publishers of this diverting work, Elliott & Thompson (who kindly sent me a review copy), describe it as addictive – and it is certainly that. Each page contains a handful of intriguing word-related trivia, much of it etymological or semantic. Weird terms, old slang and surprising histories abound. But unlike most trivia books, which are structured thematically, Word Drops is arranged sequentially:

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Book review: Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, by Ammon Shea

August 26, 2014

In his groundbreaking Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler, with his customary insight, wrote:

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

If the history of the English usage wars shows us anything, it’s how overpowering that temptation has proved, and still proves, to be. No special training is required to be an amateur grammarian, and so the annals of language commentary fill with unfounded peeves from those who like to tell other people they are Doing Language Wrong.

ammon shea - bad english -a history of linguistic aggravation - perigee book coverOf course, there has always been an opposing force from those who know the perils of setting usage advice in stone, of saying a certain word must mean this and never that and so it should be forevermore. Decrees of this type may be out of date by the time they’re published, and can seem particularly odd or surprising a mere generation or two later.

Ammon Shea’s new book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (a copy of which I received for review from its publisher Perigee Books), is a very welcome addition to the canon of usage commentary. It is light yet scholarly, explaining disputes in a clear, informed and entertaining fashion and proceeding in each case to a sensible conclusion.

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