At the Mashed Radish, I like to nibble on etymology, snacking on the origins of words and getting a taste of how they’ve changed over time. So, I was excited to get some bigger linguistic portions, if you will, when I read Colin McNairn’s In a Manner of Speaking: Phrases, Expressions, and Proverbs and How We Use and Misuse Them. The publisher, Skyhorse Publishing, kindly sent me a copy to review. I found the book very tasty and think you will, too.
From higgledy piggledy and a pig in a poke to Bushisms and spoonerisms, In a Manner of Speaking has a big appetite. As McNairn states in his introduction:
This book is unlike most others in the field, for it’s not simply a compilation of expressions or sayings with meanings and their origins. Rather, it spins a narrative that “runs the gamut” of the characteristics of both tools of communication, including their style, their use of various literary devices, including metaphors, similes and other figures of speech, their recurring patterns, their encryption as acronyms and the varieties of images they draw upon–ranging from the world of animals to human anatomy to the food and drink that we consume. The book is also different from its predecessors in that it brings expressions and sayings together “under one roof” and illuminates their similarities and differences.
But McNairn has still more room on his plate: He also looks at how such language–mostly American English, though a good deal of British, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian English, too–is “manipulated in a humorous fashion.”
His menu–if you’ll permit me to continue the metaphor in the spirit of this book–includes 16 chapters (er, courses) which classify and categorize various expressions based on a different feature, theme, or topic that, according to McNairn, underlies their usage.
He starts with rhyming and alliterative expressions (e.g., mumbo jumbo, deader than a doornail), whose sound symbolism help give them their power. He moves on to idioms (break a leg) and amusing wordplay involving non-literal language, like such Wellerisms as “I’m dressed to kill,” as the recruit said when he donned his uniform. Next up is illogical expressions whose meanings have been obscured. For instance, the expression happy as a clam makes sense when you learn it was originally as happy as a clam in butter sauce.
McNairn then serves up coded expressions, such as euphemisms (pushing up daisies), acronyms (YOLO), and rhyming slang, such as the famed Cockney variety, all showing off the breadth of the material he draws from. He offers expressions that draw on places (a New York minute), expressions that draw on persons (like the northern English you’ll end up in Dickie’s meadow), expressions involving words whose meanings have evolved (the fell in one fell swoop, say), and expressions that rely on metaphor (walls have ears).
McNairn continues with an insightful chapter on the structure of certain sayings: Once an X, always an X or X is as X does. He proceeds to expressions that compete and contradict one another in the language: The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese. His courses keep coming with a chapter on sayings that originate in or are riffed on commerce (Just Do It) and another on ones that originate in Latin (carpe diem). He closes with chapters based on the body (thumbs up), animals (bell the cat), food (eat crow), and drinks (bottoms up).
As you might have guessed, In a Manner of Speaking scoops up a generous helping of content. And each chapter, moreover, is truly chock full of examples.
Many of his examples are toothy little morsels: Keeping up with the Joneses originates from a 1900s comic strip while the graffito Kilroy was here was popularized during World War II. Sometimes I learned something surprising and new: To call a spade a spade comes from a mistranslation of Greek. Sometimes I had a good chcukle: “Strine” is a term imitating Australian accents, famed from the writings of Afferback Lauder, a pseudonym that sounds like an Australian pronunciation of “alphabetical order.”
McNairn’s sources are delightfully eclectic: the Bible, Shakespeare, limericks, Monthy Python, fortune cookies, popular t-shirts, and the Urban Dictionary are all welcome In a Manner Speaking. The kinds of expressions are eclectic, too: mottos, slogans, proverbs, mock proverbs, dead metaphors, shaggy dog stories, clichés, snowclones, mondegreens, and eggcorns.
How about a taste? Here’s a fun passage from his chapter, “Animal Images”:
Although sucking eggs involved an admirable talent on the part of grandmothers, the demand “go suck eggs” developed as a slang form of derision in North America. That expression comes from the behavior of unwanted henhouse intruders, the skunk and the weasel, who are wont to come out at night “under cover of darkness” and suck out the contents of any eggs they find. At least “that’s what they say,” to add some “weasel words” to the narrative. The stoat, also know as the ermine, behaves in the same fashion as the weasel but, otherwise, the two species are readily distinguishable for, in the words of a punishingly bad joke (repeated here with suitable apologies), “one is weasily recognized and the other is stoatally different.” However, it’s worth noting, while temporarily mired at this low level of humor, that “stoat” and “weasel” do have certain similarities, for there’s an “a” in each and an “n” in neither.
I think this passage illustrates well McNairn’s style. His writing is fun, inviting, and easy to read. His tone is sometimes wry, sometimes zesty. His explanation of technical terms is clear. His organization is associative and well-paced.
However, I did find myself getting distracted by the use of expressions to explain expressions (e.g., “At least ‘that’s what they say'”… above), even if it illustrates just how much we rely on expressions.
(This, too, was ironically illustrated when he explains the literal meaning of expressions. For instance:
Many other similes refer accurately to familiar animal behavior patterns. For example, a strong draw or attraction, particularly to some thing, may be described as being “like bees to honey,” “like moths to a flame,” or “like flies to sugar.” These similes all trade upon the recognized susceptibilities or instincts of the named creatures.
His explanation, at least to me, is obvious to the point of it going without saying, but this only underscores how taken-for-granted expressions are in language.)
Further, I also found myself sometimes losing McNairn’s larger point due to the jumpiness of his narrative.
Speaking of his larger point, I liked how McNairn organizes expressions by type rather than merely listing out randomly interesting ones, but his effort at typology left me hungry for the deeper conclusions he drew about the very patterns he identifies. What do we make of and take away from the fact that some sayings rely on animal behaviors and others on food, that sound symbolism shapes some expressions while syntax forms others Perhaps some concluding remarks may have helped. Or perhaps McNairn is just “cooking that up” in his next book–which I would look forward to reading.
In a Manner of Speaking clearly “takes a big bite out of the apple,” as McNairn might say, and gives “a lot to chew on” and “filled me up.” Dig in.
IN A MANNER OF SPEAKING
By Colin McNairn
288 pp. Skyhorse Publishing. US $14.99.