Book review: Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch

August 20, 2019

Language is always changing, and on a macro level some of the most radical changes have resulted from technology. Writing is the prime example. Millennia after its development, telephony reshaped our communication; mere decades later, computers arrived, became networked, and here I am, typing something for you to read on your PC or phone, however many miles away.

The internet’s effects on our use of language are still being unpacked. We are in the midst of a dizzying surge in interconnectivity, and it can be hard to step back and understand just what is happening to language in the early 21st century. Why are full stops often omitted now? What exactly are emoji doing? Why do people lol if they’re not laughing? With memes, can you even?

Book cover is bright yellow, with text in black. The subtitle is highlighted in blue, with pins bracketing it, like on a phone.Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is a new book by linguist Gretchen McCulloch that sets out to demystify some of the strange shifts going on in language right now. It provides a friendly yet substantial snapshot of linguistic trends and phenomena online, and it explains with clarity and ebullience what underpins them – socially, psychologically, technologically, linguistically.

‘When future historians look back on this era,’ McCulloch writes,

they’ll find our changes just as fascinating as we now find innovative words from Shakespeare or Latin or Norman French. So let’s adopt the perspective of these future historians now, and explore the revolutionary period in linguistic history that we’re living through from a place of excitement and curiosity.

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Book review: Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson

August 12, 2019

Most books about punctuation aim to prescribe the rules for its use. Few take a single mark as their subject and eschew any such aim. The semicolon, adored and avoided in equal measure, is used with joy, anxiety, flair, and deep uncertainty. But where did it come from? Why is it perceived as difficult? And how should you use it anyway?

Cecelia Watson’s welcome biography Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (Ecco, 2019) sets out to examine these questions, in some cases not so much answering them as subverting their assumptions. As a historian, writing teacher, and philosopher of science, she is well equipped to tackle this thorny field.

Watson is also, significantly, a reformed stickler who outgrew her annoyance at supposed lapses in approved usage. Semicolon spends little time on rules. What may seem a strange omission makes perfect sense as Watson instead proceeds to show how diversely those rules have been advanced by different authorities at different times – and how authors have continually disregarded them in the service of style.

This variability serves as a prism through which Watson explores the subtleties of English prose as reflected in the semicolon, ‘charting its transformation from a mark designed to create clarity to a mark destined to create confusion’. The semicolon, she writes,

is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated, so that in this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.

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Book review: ‘The Dictionary of Difficult Words’ by Jane Solomon and Louise Lockhart

April 26, 2019

Early English dictionaries, such as A Table Alphabeticall (1604), did not aim to be thorough. Instead they defined only difficult and specialised vocabulary – the assumption being that ordinary, familiar words did not need explaining. There are practical benefits to learning difficult words, and they often have aesthetic and intellectual appeal too, whether they are ‘lost’ words or simply outside the everyday trade of language.

Book cover of The Dictionary of Difficult Words. It is mainly dark blue, with lots of individual letters and small images scattered about, such as a worm, boat, guitar, rainbow, and butterfly. In the middle is a pink rectangle with ragged edges. Inside it is the title, in red and white text, and the author and illustrator's name in black underneath.Children in particular can be delighted by weird and wonderful words. And children in particular will lap up The Dictionary of Difficult Words, a new book written by lexicographer Jane Solomon and illustrated by Louise Lockhart. It’s aimed principally at readers aged 7–12, but this is a publication that will brighten anyone’s bookshelf. It would be very much at home in school libraries too.

Before opening the book, I was struck by how attractive it is as an object. The large, slim hardback has an embossed title and beautiful texture on the cover. The design throughout is fun and expressive, with multiple drawings or collages on every page. The whole package is artfully coloured and styled, with lexical and graphic marvels galore.

Some definitions are pithy:

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Book review: ‘Talk on the Wild Side’ by Lane Greene

September 21, 2018

Language today is partly tame and partly wild, and the two will always be in tension. —Lane Greene, Talk on the Wild Side

It’s funny how many people profess to love the English language yet express this mostly by moaning about how others use it. Turns out they only love one dialect: the formal English they were taught at school. Other varieties receive their scorn and condescension. Everyday developments like dropped sounds or shifts in meaning are taken as signs of imminent linguistic ruin.

To fear that change could so corrupt English that it would slip into terminal decline is to misunderstand what language is and how we use it. No language in recorded history has ever devolved into grunts, but that hasn’t stopped people worrying that English will, if their favourite scapegoat – young people, managers, Americans, northerners, anyone not white and middle-class – carries on ‘mangling’ it the way they do.

If you have concerns about English being degraded, grab yourself a copy of Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language by Lane Greene, newly published by Profile Books (who kindly sent me a copy). In fact, if you’re at all interested in language change and the remarkable efforts people have made to thwart or control that change, you’ll find much to enjoy in Greene’s book.

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Book review: The Evasion-English Dictionary by Maggie Balistreri

July 16, 2018

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.

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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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