“Alphabetter Juice Or, The Joy of Text” by Roy Blount Jr. (Sarah Crichton Books, $26)
“Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English: A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists” (Scribner, $17 paperback)
“Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions” by James E. Clapp, Elizabeth G. Thornburg, Marc Galanter and Fred R. Shapiro (Yale University Press, $45)
Happy New Year, and I hope all your resolutions will be more than just words. But, really, can anything be just words?
Not these days, when words count, down to the letter, as our language changes rapidly with new demands. Our words — in whatever form or format, even a resolution that may be more a wish than a plan — are a big part of what makes us human; they are the concrete end-products of the way we think.
They are also a source of fascination, and you needn’t be an etymologist to have a good time tracing word histories and discovering the strings of ideas that tie together over time and across oceans to fashion our language. Publishers, with words as their stock in trade, continue to commission books about them — the last several months have seen plenty of releases — and although some of these consider only grammar, or are frosty takes on modern usage, most plumb the curious ways in which our 2012 English has evolved.
I’ve been spending my spare time (now there’s a phrase with little original meaning for many of us) with eight of these books, and I probably could have found more. Three stand out because they aren’t just general tracts about our language. Instead, they’re jammed with fun-fact stuff — information not always useful but frequently revealing or insightful. These three, all with alphabetically arranged entries, made me think about English in new ways or are, simply, a delight.
Roy Blount Jr.’s follow-up to his 2008 “Alphabet Juice is Alphabetter Juice,” which is nicely subtitled “The Joy of Text,” and which came out during the summer in the first wave of the new word books. Blount’s train of thought in these entries often provides a wild ride. An example of this is his entry for “since.” After a short look at the early forms of the conjunction, Blount shakes his head over the different acceptable usages that can render the word ambiguous. “Is it merely after your baby left you, or because your baby left you, that you’ve been living down on the corner of Lonely Street?” he asks. And then he goes into a riff about “The West Wing.”
If you’re a fan of NPR’s weekly news-quiz “Wait, Wait ... Don’t Tell Me,” which features Blount in its rotating pool of regular panelists, you can hear his pleasant drawl as you read. He makes the same sort of feet-on-the-ground observations as he does extemporaneously on the radio show. Under an entry for “fudge,” he cites the Oxford English Dictionary’s 1766 citation of the word’s usage “to represent an inarticulate expression of indignant disgust.” Asks Blount: “What’s ‘inarticulate’ about it?” and then goes on to the next entry.
Inarticulate — or more to the point, incorrect — is the theme of “Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English,” which came out in November. Fiske, an author of several books on English and the editor of a monthly online journal called the Vocabula Review, has collected lots of evidence to demonstrate the public warping of our tongue. In a short note at the book’s beginning, you can see instantly how he acquired so many examples: 70 percent of them come from the Internet, which offers the most solid argument for editing because it has so little.
In some of Fiske’s entries, I found a dispiriting denial that English remains a living, breathing, and therefore, changing language — Fiske’s take on enormity, for instance, recognizes that the word means not only “awful” but that users commonly resurrect its archaic meaning as “very large,” and cannot condone the second usage.
But on the whole, Fiske’s dictionary gave me plenty to think about, particularly the varying shades of meaning in many words for a single concept — one of the treasures of English. Try “disinterest”: “Take the typical American voter’s disinterest in politics …” is the sentence Fiske cites, then says, “Use indifference to.” Then, another example: “For Washingtonians, pop culture is a threat, a Pied Piper leading Americans down the road to disinterest.” Says Fiske: “Use apathy.” A third example comes from talk at Cannes about the lack of a Hollywood presence “due to the festival’s inattention or industry disinterest.” Says Fiske: “Use indifference.”
His point in all this is that the actual meaning of disinterest is “impartiality” or “without bias.” Even if you believe that no one can counteract the blurring of that word, the options Fiske offers are revealing about the alternatives our language provides.
Blurring words can be deadly in the practice of law, which demands precision English. “Lawtalk,” by a legal lexicographer, a law librarian, and two law professors is subtitled “The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions,” itself a suspiciously imprecise idea; how can you put together a book of stories if they’re unknown? So I opened “Lawtalk” with creased brow, concerned that it would be sloppy or maybe esoteric.
Both counts, dismissed. The stories are fun and well-researched. Take “jailbait,” traced to novels of the ’30s and leading readers to another entry, age of consent, a smoothly told history of the concept that even includes a good joke. And while we’re at it, flip to kill all the lawyers, which considers not only Shakespeare and his line from Henry VI, Part 2, but also a real rebellion on behalf of landowners. (And another joke.)
Dig beneath the words we say, and it’s amazing what you find on your way to the roots.