Book review: What the Dickens?! by Bryan Kozlowksi

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 for Bryan 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.

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Image from Running Press.

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 of  glass) 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 Victorian  culture, 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…

WHAT THE DICKENS?!
By Bryan Kozlowksi
224 pages. Running PressRunning Press. US $15.00.

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Metymology? Mashed Radish turns three

Oh yeah: I missed a few important milestones recently.

Mashed Radish turned three earlier this month. Politics inspired quite a few posts – Donald Trump especially – this past year. While politics may divide us, a shared love of words certainly brings us together. Like animals, which also prompted quite a lot of writing. You know, I think this blog could definitely do with more animal posts.

I’ve also reached over 10,000 followers. Wow. Gosh. Thanks, everyone, for your continued – or new – interest, readership, comments, and support.

Speaking of support, I’ve a third milestone comping up which I’ll be sure not to miss: my second wedding anniversary. I really need to thank my wife for all the support she’s given and sacrifices (yes, etymologies have their costs) she’s made for this project.

Now, how’d the first two pass me by? Well, I moved to Dublin, for one. For another, my head’s been absolutely stuffed with Shakespeare, whose complete works I’ve been reading and writing about at Shakespeare Confidential. I’ve also been regularly contributing to Slate’s Lexicon ValleyStrong Language, and Oxford Dictionaries. Etymologies open doors to the past, as I like to say. And, if three years is any measure, to the future as well.

But I can’t sign off without a word origin, can I? So, how about a quick etymology of etymology?

Etymology

We actually have evidence of the word etymology in a Latin form in Old English, though we see it Anglicized around the late 1300s, early 1400s . English gets the word in part from French (ethimologie) and in part directly from Latin (etymologia). Latin, in turn, borrowed the word from the Greek ἐτυμολογία (etymologia). If you’ll allow me to jump over some intermediary derived forms, the Greek ultimately joins ἐτεός (eteos, “true”) and λόγος (logos, “word”). Some think the Greek eteos is related to the Old English soð (“truth”), which, if you’ve been reading your Shakespeare, you might recognize in soothsayer or the mild oath For sooth! 

Historically then, we can understand etymology as the analysis of a word on the basis of its literal, or true, meaning. We should be careful not to commit the etymological fallacy, however, which posits that only the original meaning of a word is its right sense. Wrong. Words change. That’s in part why I love etymology. But we don’t want to be too, too careful, because I think we can glean insights in those ancient meanings still relevant to us today – and because I wouldn’t have a blog with a third anniversary to mark!

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Book review: Holy Cow! by Boze Hadleigh

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.

But animals just don’t run wild in the origin of individual words: They also come in droves throughout the English language, from raining cats and dogs to currying favor. In his new book, Holy Cow! Doggerel, Catnaps, Scapegoats, Foxtrots, and Horse Feathers – Splendid Animal Words and Phrases, author Boze Hadleigh goes whole hog with his veritable menagerie of “the origin stories and the definitions of hundreds (at least!) of animal-related words, phrases, and expressions,” as he writes in his introduction. Skyhorse Publishing, whose In a Manner of Speaking I also recently enjoyed, kindly sent me a copy of Holy Cow! to review.

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.

Image from Skyhorse Publishing.

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 curbitchpuppy, 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 indeed comes 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.

HOLY COW! 
By Boze Hadleigh
320 pp. Skyhorse Publishing. US $14.99.

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