“Quotation marks” or ‘inverted commas’?

May 31, 2019

‘Words for punctuation,’ Lynne Murphy writes in her new book The Prodigal Tongue, ‘offer a neat little laboratory for viewing the possible fates of migrating words.’

Penguin UK book cover of Lynne Murphy's The Prodigal Tongue. Red cover, with black text and white text. The main title is in speech bubbles from two illustrated men squaring up to box one another. One is dressed as a cowboy, the other in a bowler hat and business suit.When North America was being settled, norms of punctuation, including the marks’ names, were very much in flux. So when things stabilized, the names in the US and the UK sometimes differed. Certain marks, such as the comma and question mark, acquired the same name in both regions; others, such as the full stop (period, full point), diverged.

The latter group also includes quotation marks, aka inverted commas. But the facts are more complicated – and therefore more interesting – than is generally supposed. Here’s Murphy:

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86 that slang etymology

May 17, 2019

Sometimes the universe hints strongly at what I should write about. Recently I read two books in close succession that featured the same curious slang word, used in different ways and worth a quick study. For one thing, it’s not just a word but a number: 86.

First there was Merritt Tierce’s fierce first novel Love Me Back. Its narrator, who works in a restaurant, says:

Later that day I am in the wine cellar updating the eighty-sixed list when the Bishop’s handler comes by.

Then I read Alison Bechdel’s brilliant comic memoir Fun Home, which shows another usage of 86 and a speculative origin story – but is it true? (Click images to embiggen.)

Two comic-book frames. #1 shows Bechdel and her mother on a street outside a building, with a tree and a passing stranger also visible. Bechdel: "Where was your apartment?" Mother, pointing: "4-E, up there." #2 shows them walking past an old wooden door. Mother: "This is Chumley's. Dad and I used to come drink here." Bechdel: "It's a bar? How come there's no sign?"

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Friends, Romans, countrymen: a language newsletter

May 3, 2019

For the sake of my inbox, I keep my newsletter subscriptions to a minimum. Ken Grace’s Friends, Romans, countrymen… is one that makes the cut. Running since 2012, it’s a weekly update from New Zealand on ‘language, good writing and communication’, often exploring usage and etymology. So it’s right up my street.

After five years of the newsletter, Grace collected some of its highlights in a book titled Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines: A moderately reliable history of interesting words. It offers good humour and common sense about words and language use, written in a friendly, enthusiastic, educational style.

Since I’ve been writing about lost words and difficult words, I’ll mention an usual word to which the book introduced me: micromort. It means a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Driving 370 km in the UK gives you 1 micromort, apparently, as does driving 10 km on a motorbike, taking three flights, or travelling 10,000 km by train.

Grace has opinions about usage, but he knows that’s all they are. He can indulge a pet peeve without being dogmatic about other people’s use of language. Here, for example, is his reaction to a street sign that said Roadworks. Use alternate route:

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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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50 lost words from the OED

April 17, 2019

Ammon Shea loves dictionaries – especially the OED. He loves the OED so much, he read it – the whole thing, in its second edition: 21,730 pages with around 59 million words. It took him a year, full-time, and he wrote a book about it, titled Reading the OED (2008).

This is not a review, but it is a recommendation. Reading the OED will charm anyone who’s into dictionaries and words, especially unusual ones, or anyone curious about unusual hobbies and passions-slash-afflictions. (I did review Shea’s 2014 book Bad English, an entertaining historical snapshot of the English usage wars.)

Book cover of "Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages". The cover shows a man lying on his back on the grass with his hands crossed on his belly and a volume of the OED open on his face. He's probably asleep.When I said Shea loves dictionaries, I meant he really, really loves them. (This repetition of really is an example of epizeuxis, which is defined below.) Before the book came out, he moved house and brought 45 boxes: dictionaries filled 41 of them. As well as the 20-volume second edition of the OED, he owns the 13-volume 1933 edition, the four-volume supplement, the two- and ten-volume Shorter OEDs, the condensed-type edition, and ‘a random single-volume edition’. ‘Each has its own usefulness,’ he assures us. Certainly these things are relative, but I don’t doubt him for an instant.

So what was it like to read the biggest, most celebrated dictionary ever compiled – ‘the most coveted and desirable book in the world’, as Oliver Sacks wrote? ‘It is resolutely, obstinately, and unapologetically exhaustive,’ writes Shea. ‘These qualities make it both a tremendous joy to read at some times and unbearably boring at others.’

How boring? Consider the un- prefix:

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‘The most coveted and desirable book in the world’

April 10, 2019

Oliver Sacks is one of my favourite science writers, for many reasons: the remarkable lives he reports, his insight and empathy in doing so, his unabashed honesty, his love for the creative arts. He also excels at conveying technical ideas and complicated phenomena in plain language without compromising their complexity.

Sacks has a flair for the right word, the telling metaphor, the poetic flourish that impresses his stories’ truth. He doesn’t rely on jargon but will use it when appropriate. Though his breadth of vocabulary and command of registers are impressive, they never feel forced or flashy. This is someone whose love of words is obvious in their prose – you might think this would be automatic with authors, but it’s not.

Recently, after reading Sacks’s book The Mind’s Eye, I visited his YouTube channel to catch up on any supplemental material, and ended up watching all the videos (there aren’t many, and they’re short). In one, Sacks reads an anecdote from his autobiography, about his time at the University of Oxford, which chimes nicely with his logophilia:

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Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee language

April 2, 2019

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel has an engrossing chapter on the evolution of writing as a communication technology. It includes a brief account of the development of a syllabary – a set of written characters that represent syllables – for the Cherokee language. The syllabary looks like this:

Original Cherokee syllabary, via Wikipedia

Some of the signs (or ‘syllabograms’) will look familiar, others like variations of familiar shapes. But any similarity to the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, R, D, W, encode the sounds e, a, la. So what’s going on?

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