Book review: A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order, by Judith Flanders

November 10, 2020

Alphabetical order is all around us, to various degrees of prominence. Yet it is less straightforward than is often supposed: my efforts to catalogue my books and DVDs, not to mention the bibliographies that I proofread, point to myriad complications. Alphabetical order is not the uniform ideal it may superficially seem to be.

It also often shares space with other kinds of order, such as genre, or personal cosmology. A traditional phone book does not quite go from A to Z – businesses are listed separately. Many of them, moreover, game the system, bypassing its seeming neutrality. (Nicola Barker’s novel Darkmans – itself the size of a phone book – has a character enraged by a competitor whose company name pips him in the listings.)

Still, alphabetical order is far more neutral than other systems. Historically, power played an outsized role in the arrangement of listable items; for centuries that power reflected prevailing religious norms. In early medieval Christendom, works often strove to reflect the hierarchy of God’s creation, and so alphabetical order ‘looked like resistance, even rebellion […] or possibly ignorance’.

This comment comes from a new book, A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order by Judith Flanders. It tells the story of ‘how we moved from the arrival of the alphabet around 2000 BCE to the slow unfolding of alphabetical order as a sorting tool some three thousand years later’. It is a welcome exploration of an area that has received relatively little attention compared to the alphabet itself:

Ordering and sorting, and then returning to the material sorted via reference tools, have become so integral to the Western mindset that their significance is both almost incalculable and curiously invisible.

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Book review: Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers, by Robin A. Crawford

July 21, 2020

My limited knowledge of Scots and Scottish English when I was young was based on caricatures in comics, particularly ‘Hot-Shot Hamish’. It was not until later that visits to Scotland, friendships with Scottish people, and books by the likes of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh gave me a proper flavour of the richness of Scots vocabulary and grammar.

Scots is a language with Germanic roots and a complicated political history. Linguistically it has been described as a continuum spanning Broad Scots and Standard Scottish English, with considerable variety in between. A common misconception is dispatched on the Spellin an Grammar page of Scots Wikipedia: ‘Scots isna juist Inglis written wi orra wirds an spellins. It haes its ain grammar an aw.’

It is wirds that are showcased in Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers, a new book by Robin A. Crawford, whose publisher, Elliott & Thompson, sent me a copy. The book is a marvellous compendium of a thousand Scottish words, from a’ (aa, aw) ‘all’ to yowe trummle ‘unseasonably cold weather in early summer’ – cold enough to make a yowe (ewe) trummle (tremble).

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Book review: Sounds & Furies: The Love–Hate Relationship between Women and Slang, by Jonathon Green

November 30, 2019

Slang, the language of the streets, the tavern, the underground, the counterculture, the gutter, has traditionally been seen as a male preserve. Women feature in it, of course – but chiefly, unflatteringly, as objects. Slang, as Jonathon Green writes in Language!, is ‘a gendered vocabulary that while it does not exclude woman, is keen to keep them in their place: the nagging wife, the sexy ingénue, the whore, the hag’.

So what of women not as objects in slang but as its creators and users? Far less has been written on this front. ‘Women’s use of slang is drastically under-reported,’ writes Green in his new book, Sounds & Furies: The Love–Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. As the world’s foremost slang lexicographer, he would know, and he has scoured the available records to describe the extent and nature of that relationship.

The cover of Jonathon Green's book Sounds & Furies. It is light grey with text in black and mostly red, drawn as if sewn in thread. Around the all-caps title in the middle are a few flowers on winding stems, and small red bird saying 'OMFG'.Those records go back centuries and surge in the digital era. Sounds & Furies is a rich social history told through a lexicological lens, from Chaucer to Mumsnet via Flappers and Valley Girls. There are ample, lengthy quotations and edifying commentary. The former can be grim on occasion and not for sensitive readers: slang’s treatment of social minorities, Green observes, is ‘depressingly conservative’; of women in particular it is ‘viciously misogynistic’.

The book’s focus, happily, is on women and slang, not in slang. Its sources are diverse: novels, newspapers, poems, plays, songs, ballads, court reports, vaudeville, memoirs, biographies, detective stories – crime being one of slang’s most fertile arenas – and of course the internet. In each case the slang is identified, contextualized, and analyzed. These often boisterous excerpts will delight fans of ‘low’ varieties of English.

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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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