Words are Stupid, Words are Fun

Verbatim: From the Bawdy to the Sublime, the Best Writing on Language…
Erin McKean, ed.

In having their day, nerds have also demonstrated the mutability of language.

In my formative years, fueled by use of the word as a put-down on the top sitcom ‘Happy Days’, nerds were hopelessly clueless types, excellent students often obsessed with interests no other human being could fathom. The extroverted among them were identifiable, as the old joke goes, because they were looking at your shoes.

They seemed to be the kids who excelled in science classes, many also excelled at math. I should know, I was one of them. But I never thought nerds would get their own hit TV show. Yet here we are.

There are, of course, flavors of nerd. Computer nerds. Math nerds. Jazz nerds. And, yes, even language nerds. True obsessives can specialize. Interested in word origins? Right this way to etymology. Have a historical bent? Philology, second floor left. Prefer a broader overview?  I suggest a visit to the linguistics mezzanine.

Or if like me, you’re blessed with the attention span of a goldfish and the stick-to-it-iveness of the average toddler, you could read this book.

Before the book, though, there was the quarterly of the same name. This is, in fact, an anthology and you know I love the efficiency of that form. Truth be told, the absence of commitment is also a bonus. In this case, though, the book is all we have because the magazine, founded by Lawrence Urdang in 1974, ceased publishing three decades on. This book, edited by Urdang’s handpicked successor, Erin McKean, is all we have left.

Lawrence Urdang
Polylingual lexicographer

Both Urdang and McKean toiled (use the present tense for Ms. McKean, please), I’d almost say happily toiled, in one of the fields most of us never think about, practical lexicography. That’s writing, compiling and editing dictionaries to you and me. Admit it, you’ve never once reached for the dictionary and given a passing thought to all the labor hidden in those columns of words. I’d be concerned about you if you had.

But if you’ve ever gotten lost in looking up a string of synonyms, obsessively pursuing what my francophone friends call le mot juste, these are the folks to thank. And like all language nerds, their interest can’t be confined by their job. Luckily, Mr. Urdang was also one of those people filled with boundless energy. How else to explain birthing a magazine devoted to “…a general interest in language … to satisfy intellectual curiosity.”

How general and how curious?  Let’s start with the subtitle, abbreviated above. In its entirety, it reads, “From the bawdy to the sublime, the best writing on language for word lovers, grammar mavens and armchair linguists. ” Ok, it’s not quite Arthur Gordon Pym length, but it certainly casts a wide net and, as ‘sell copy’ goes, does a pretty good job of making a promise that a single word just can’t convey.

Erin McKean
I told you the people who produce dictionaries were real.

The book is divided into sections which include the areas noted in the subtitle as well as the more formally named language disciplines I noted near the outset. Many of the contributors are academics but just as many are interested amateurs.

That’s appropriate given we’re speaking almost entirely about English, the most democratic language. Despite its global stature, English has no equivalent to the Académie Française , comprised of forty immortal mortals with final say on what is and isn’t proper. This is English. It is what we say it is and as long as our correspondent understands, we get on with it.

Which brings me to pleonasms, a fancy word meaning unnecessary repetition. Anyone who’s ever read an ad for an investment product has encountered an SECmandated example when they are told to call “For more complete information…” Dr. Harold J. Ellner has a bee in his bonnet for these verbose aggressions. He suggests a new label, pleonasty, for the most egregious examples. Helpfully, he provides a starting list divided into categories. You’ll never be able to hear “He’ll try a 44-yard field goal attempt” again without wincing.

I suppose fans might call themselves puzzlers, but they’re really just language nerds

That’s as good an example as any of what you’ll find here. The wit is the sort my dad would have derided, the author is an amateur. And, I’d submit, he’s just as likely to improve the language as Bishop Lowth, whose misguided application of mathematical principles to language is widely resisted.

If this is your sort of thing, this is the book for you. I admit. it was mother’s milk to me. I cringed in recognition. I learned a few things. I disagreed with many authors. I struggled through what was, effectively, a tutorial in the logic of British crosswords,  which relish wordplay in a way I just can’t comprehend. My North American brain, it seems, is hard-wired for trivia.

There’s plenty of wordplay here. One feature repeated throughout the book are errata sent in by readers of the magazine. Labeled Sic! Sic! Sic! they offer an assortment of published howlers from around the English-speaking world. (Differences between those like-tongued precincts get a section all their own, too.)

There’s plenty more, high and low, rosy and blue. It’s not even confined to English. John Cassidy shares how regional dialectical Spanish in Latin America makes for some uncomfortable public utterances.  Pete May delineates the roots of English football chants in popular song. Even the academics are lively in a way they’d never be in their discipline’s journals (though they might be in the bar while attending a conference).

Believe me, it’s easy to wind up with stacks of these.

The book’s final section (isn’t that eschatologically sound?) is where the most fearsome word in the language gets its due.  It was my sad duty to inform a medievalist friend that a ciphered scrap seems to predate William Dunbar‘s claim to be first in print with what Carter Revard refers to as the “popular quadrilateral.” Not that the offending verb/adjective/noun lay at the heart of his dissertation, but it is one of the first things one learns about Dunbar.

Allow me to sum up: if English class felt like torture, stay away. If you enjoy getting lost in dialog with writers, there’s a better than even chance you’ll find something to delight you in this book.

You can believe me. Nerds don’t fib about math.







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