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It’s All in a Word

A British Sunday newspaper used to say on its masthead “All human life is here”. Vivian Cook’s book might similarly be subtitled “All English language is here”.

In 321 pages Professor Cook (he’s professor of applied linguistics at Newcastle University) packs 121 little chapterettes with themes that include medical slang (gassers are anaesthetists and slashers are surgeons, while TEETH expands to “Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy”) and the differences between the lyrics of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (the latter are tougher and more streetwise, employing words such as hiding, rocking and flying, while the Beatles’ ones are more touchy-feely with loving, feeling and holding).

The cover of 'It's All in a Word'

If you’d like to know how the vocabulary for ways to cook your food differs between English and Japanese, learn which words were first used by Geoffrey Chaucer, discover Basic English, review your jazz slang, learn regional British words for alleyways, such as snicket, vennel or ginnel (though he doesn’t include the one I learned as a child in Sussex: twitten), you’ll find them all here in bite-size chunks. You can take a brief lesson in Pig Latin (the examples are taken from titles of Abba songs) and a semantic differential test illustrated by a quiz on what Queen Elizabeth II means to you (there are lots of quizzes, for example to test your vocabulary or discover how good you are at guessing unfamiliar words from context).

However, some comments are surprising, such as his assertion that “around 700” words are first found in Shakespeare’s writings. This is an underestimate: the OED lists 1,869. Writing about the vocabulary of poets, he supports his very reasonable view that Eliot’s aetherial, spirit-like, is not a word in current everyday use by telling us that the OED has no twentieth-century examples. It hasn’t, but then the entry that includes it hasn’t been revised since it was first published in 1891. In a discussion of the variations in numbers of words for colours in different languages, he asserts that Welsh only has two basic colour words, for black and white — it certainly has fewer than in English but a look at any Welsh dictionary will show a good selection.

This, you will have realised, is not a read-right-through book, but a dipping-into miscellany, a potpourri or gallimaufry. If you are feeling unkind, you might call it a mish-mash of itsy-bitsy items (he has a section on reduplicated words, including dialectal ones such as borus-snorus, in Dorset formerly meaning happy-go-lucky, which Thomas Hardy employed in Under the Greenwood Tree).

The word quirky might have been invented for this book. You’re intended to have fun with it. But if your desire is for more meat on your linguistic bones, you may be disappointed.

[Vivian Cook, It’s All in a Word, published in the UK by Profile Books on 17 Sep 2009; hardback, 321pp; ISBN-13: 9781846680069, ISBN-10: 1846680069; publisher’s UK price £10.99.]

Page created 26 Sep. 2009

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