On the heels of his delightful Accidental Dictionary, Paul Anthony Jones—the word-grubbing mastermind behind the wildly popular @HaggardHawks online–is out with another collection of weird and wonderful words. This one’s called A Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words (Elliott & Thompson, 2017). The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review.
This compendium truly lives up to its name. Cracking open its beautifully crafted aged-teal and gilded cover is like peeking into an old, mysterious cabinet—a Wunderkammer (June 7, “a collection of oddities”) tucked away at the back of an antique shop, eccentric museum, or attic. On each day of his yearbook, Jones treats you to an unusual word, like some curio of yore, and in each entry, he dusts it off and holds it up to the light, telling a story about the word.
Last year, as you may recall, I read the complete works of William Shakespeare. It was an immensely rewarding project, to be sure, but I can’t lie: When I finished, I was really excited to read something else for a change. I immediately jumped forBryan Kozlowksi’s What the Dickens?!: Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them, published in October 2016 by Running Press, who kindly sent me a galley for review.
That’s right, Shakespeare. You haven’t cornered the word market in the English language. In What the Dickens?!, Kozlowksi presents 200 of Charles Dickens most, well, Dickensian words from across his writing. Like growlery, “a place of refuge where one goes to vent frustrations.” Or comfoozled, “exhausted.” Or Pumblechookian, which is “typical of Mr. Pumblechook, Pip’s pompous, greedy, and hypocritical uncle in Great Expectations.”
To guide our tour through Dickens’ whimsical and wide-ranging vocabulary, Kozlowksi loosely categorizes his selections by theme. One section is Words for Making Merry, including the likes of heeltap (a small amount of liquor remaining at the bottom ofglass) and hobbledehoy (an awkward and clumsy youth). Another is Vocabulary for the Smart-Sounding Victorian: bedight (“adorned”), plumbless (immeasurably deep), and Terpsichorean (relating to dancing), for instance.
Kozlowksi indeed curates a colorful menagerie, from words Dickens invented (sassigassity, “audacity with an attitude”) and based on his characters (Pecksniffian, “hypocritical”) to places (Gretna Green, a place at the the Anglo-Scottish border where lovers often eloped ) and practices of Dickens’ day (farm for children, a primitive Victorian day care, or cag- magger, an unscrupulous butcher).
And for each, page-long entry, Kozlowksi not only defines the words, but he also quotes their original context and offers insight into Victorianculture, an anecdote about Dickens, or an interesting fact about the history and origin of the word at hand. Take moor-eeffoc, which particularly delighted me:
Moor-eeffoc [MOO-ee-fok] The uncanniness of common things seen suddenly from a different perspective. Case in point: Moor-eeffoc is simply the backward spelling of “coffee room.”
I recollect that…in the door there was an oval glass-plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee room now, but there there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal revere), a shock goes through my blood.
– From Dickens’ Abandoned Autobiography
Moor-eeffoc is the most elusive and enigmatic word in the Dickensian lexicon. Dickens himself didn’t know how to define it, though future writers linked it to the very heart of his creative legacy. The word was of deep significance to fantasy writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.K. Chesterton–with the latter’s definition still considered the best:
That wild word, ‘Moor Eeffoc’, is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good realistic principle–the principle that the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate object. The date on the door danced over Mr. Grewgious’s, the knocker grinned at Mr. Scrooge, the Roman on the ceiling pointed down at Mr. Tulkinghorn, the elderly armchair leered at Tom Smart–these are all moore eeffocish things. A man sees them because he does not look at them.
I like to open up the book at random, enjoying each word like some magic little portal into Dickens’ world and imagination. Like lummy, which the Artful Dodger used in Oliver Twist for “first rate.” It’s “originally part of the longer interjection Lor’ lummy,” Kozlowksi explains, “a Cockney contraction of ‘Lord love me,’ used to express surprise or great interest.” And it perfectly describes What the Dickens?!
Kozlowksi’s knowledge of Dickens is comprehensive, his love for Dickens’ language is infectious, and his writing is fun, smart, and accessible. It’s a great book – and gift – for Dickens-philes and logophiles alike. Lor’ lummy, it might just make want to go on to read the complete works of Charles Dickens now…
With intelligence and wit, Jones offers the surprising origins and developments of 100 everyday words, from affiliate to zombie. Each selection is pithy and engaging, making The Accidental Dictionary an ideal book to pick up whenever you need a funny yet informative break or burst of inspired word-nerdom. But I think you’ll find, like me, that the word histories Jones’ has curated – and his infectious enthusiasm for them – are hard to put down.
There aren’t many etymological stories that begin with the sublimation of a sulphite mineral, but there is at least one. It just happens also to be the story behind one of the most familiar words in the English language. So brace yourself—here comes the science bit.
When a substance changes directly from a solid into a gas with no intermediate liquid phase, that’s sublimation. It’s the same process that turns dry ice into a thick white fog without leaving pools of liquid carbon dioxide everywhere—but that’s not to suggest that sublimation is all about cheap special effects.
Back in Ancient Egypt, the mineral stibnite was heated to produce, via sublimation, a fine smoky vapour that left a layer of sooty powder on any surface with which it came into contact. The Egyptians then collected this powder (antimony trisulphide, should you really want to know) and mixed it with animal grease to produce a thick black paste that could be then used as a kind of eye shadow. Different coloured eye shadows could be made by crushing, grinding or sublimating different chemicals—galena, a lead ore, produced a rich grey colour, malachite produced a dark green—but no matter the raw ingredients, the name of this cosmetic paste was always the same: kohl, a term derived from an ancient Arabic word meaning ‘stain’ or ‘paint’.
Now, here comes the language bit. In Arabic, the definite article, ‘the’, is a prefix, al–. That’s the same al– found in names like Algeria (‘the islands’), Allah (‘the god’), and Alhambra (‘the red castle’), as well as words like alkali (‘the ashes’), almanac (‘the calendar’) and algebra (more on that in another chapter), and it gave the Ancient Egyptians’ eye shadow the name al-kohl. The chemists and alchemists of the Middle Ages then stumbled across this term in their ancient textbooks, and began applying it to any fine powder produced likewise by sublimation—and it is in this sense that the word alcohol first appeared in English in the mid 1500s.
But to all those chemists and alchemists, sublimation was more than just a way of accentuating your eyes. Instead, it was a way of extracting the purest, most absolute essence of something, and it wasn’t long before they began applying the same techniques and ideas—not to mention the same word—to liquids.
The concentrated, intensified liquors that could be produced by refining and distilling fluids ultimately came to be known as alcohol as well, and because one of the fluids these early experiments were carried out on happened to be wine, by the mid nineteenth century the term had become particularly associated with so-called ‘alcohol of wine’—namely the alcoholic content of intoxicating liquor. Eventually, this meaning, and its associations with alcoholic spirits and beverages, established itself as the way in which the word was most widely used, while its ancient associations with sublimation and Egyptian cosmetics dropped into relative obscurity.
We’ve sighted a lot of different animals in the etymological safari that is the Mashed Radish. We’ve run with horse, talked turkey, reared up like a lion and wriggled like a shrimp with rampant, raised yearlings in old veteran, and raced with huskies in mush. We’ve sported with hawks and cardinals. We’ve traversed entire hemispheres in the native Quechuan habitat of condor and llama. We’ve even walked alongside a stegosaurus in thug.
Perhaps like a zoo arranges its exhibits, Hadleigh organizes his book into five chapters: dogs, cats, horses, other mammals, and non-mammals. Each chapter takes a very comprehensive look at the various – and truly numerous ways – we talk like the animals.
Let’s take dog as an example. Hadleigh serves up the history of hot dog and explains the meaning of hair of the dog and see a man about a dog. He discusses dog in various expressions like dog days or dog tags as well as in various words like dogwatch and doggerel. He looks into dogs in marketing, such as RCA’s Nipper, and dogs in the garden, such as dogwood. Hadleigh also covers many dog-related items, such as cur, bitch, puppy, and bark. I learned, for example, that harass may be from an Old French verb “to set a dog on” while chow, as in “food,” is related to Chinese expressions for food. According to Hadleigh, hush puppies were so-called due to their use either to quiet hunting dogs or hungry children amid the poverty of the postbellum South.
Passages like the origin of harass or hush puppy represent what I think the text does best. Lousy indeedcomes from louse, the singular form of lice. To go whole hog might be come from the option of buying the whole pig, rather than just choice cuts, from the butcher at a discounted price. Canary the bird is named for the Canary Islands, whose Latin name actually describes an island of dogs (think canine). And jaywalker is a curious specimen:
Jays, member of the crow family, usually with blue feathers, thrived along the east coast of what is now the US when European colonists arrived. As more and more arrived, most jays withdrew to the country. By the mid 1700s jay was a nickname for a country bumpkin. Rural visitors to growing cities were often baffled by the traffic, not knowing where or when to cross the street, and sometimes doing so without looking. By the early 20th century a jaywalker was what he or she is now. Today they should really know better.
As this passage illustrates, Hadleigh’s writing is clear and easy to read. For as wide-ranging it is, his content comes in small chunks, making the text one you can easily pick up and put down, as I did at the airport, at a cafe, even at a bar. Again, Holy Cow! reads like going to the zoo: You can admire linguistic creatures great and small while strolling through the chapters at your own pace, taking away an interesting fact or two as you appreciate all the ways animals have populated our language.
I did have questions about some origins and thus wish Hadleigh provided us more information about his sources than just occasionally quoting Mario Pei or the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. A bibliography would also have been not only useful but also appropriate. The text could have marked words or phrases when they are being referred to as such (e.g., italicizing jaywalker in the passage quoted above), a standard practice which makes meaning clearer and the text easier to follow. I also would have appreciated some final remarks. What did Hadleigh learn about the human animal and its language from gathering up so many animal terms into this ark of a text?
That said, Holy Cow! is a fun read. I found it very entertaining and enjoyable due in part to Hadleigh’s accessible organization and wide-ranging content and in part to the sheer fact that, as he notes in his introduction, “humans have always been drawn to animals.” It’s true. Hadleigh’s admiration for both animals and language comes across clearly in this book, and I think you, too, would enjoy a trip to his linguistic zoo.
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 hisuniform. Next up isillogical 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 (aNew 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 aspade 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.