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Why is Q Always Followed by U?

Reviewed by Erin McKean, CEO and co-founder of the online dictionary project Wordnik and editor of Verbatim: the Language Quarterly; she was before that editor-in-chief of Oxford’s American Dictionaries.

The cover of Michael Quinion's book 'Why is Q Always Followed by U?'

The most essential skill for any etymologist — more useful than a knowledge of Old English or Grimm’s Law — is the ability to say, clearly, “we don’t know” without coming across as a spoilsport or a wet blanket at the etymology party. Readers of this newsletter have known for years that he possesses this skill, in spades, and that he can be relied on to clearly separate certainty from conjecture, without losing a drop of the entertainment value to be had from either.

His new book contains “revised, corrected, expanded and updated” versions of a couple of hundred of the cogent and absorbing etymological explanations that delight the readers of this newsletter, in a pleasantly chunky and attractive volume from Penguin UK’s new Particular Books imprint. (As handy as the Internet is for quick searches and aimless surfing, it’s hard to beat a well-made book for dipping into — or for wrapping up as a gift.)

The book’s nice size allows for a great cross-section of words to discover. For every one whose history was familiar to me (for which the pleasure was not so much in discovering new facts as in enjoying seeing them related in Michael’s easy style) there were two or three novelties, including Heath Robinson (as an American my allegiance has always been to Rube Goldberg), tracklements, and on one’s tod. The entries also include information about variants: I was happy to learn that, in addition to making a whim-whim for a goose’s bridle (to express, more or less, “don’t bother me, kid”) I can also use making layovers to catch meddlers and making a whipple for a dooses poke.

The best part of Why is Q Always Followed by U?, however, is the example sentences. Nothing brings a word to life like seeing it in context, and nothing punctures a folk etymology or tall tale like sentences dating years (or decades, or centuries) before the word’s supposed origin. As an extreme example, waddle can’t be from the name of the one-legged, 200-pound Confederate captain named James Waddell, since it’s found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The sentences Michael has found are not just illuminating, they’re often interesting in their own right, and I marked a couple so that I could track down their sources myself, for pleasure reading. Many of them are from the usual suspects (Dickens, Twain, Wodehouse) but plenty are from more obscure sources, and thankfully, those are given excellent notes (for example, in the one about James Grant, at trip the light fantastic, we find out that he was the editor of the newspaper of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association, and the author of 40 books “virtually all of them now forgotten.”).

A warning: if you carry this book out in public, be prepared to be stopped by passers-by who are struck by the title and have to know, right that minute, just why it is that Q is always followed by U, anyway? (I had one woman hold up the boarding of an airplane to ask me about it.) If you’re on the shy side, you might want to invest in a book cover, or at least remove the dust jacket.

I do wish the book had included an index but even without it, Why is Q Always Followed by U? is an excellent book for browsing, and would make a wonderful gift to spark someone’s interest in etymology and word history. Highly recommended.

[Michael Quinion, Why is Q Always Followed by U?, published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, on 2 July 2009; hardback, 352pp; publisher’s UK list price £12.99. ISBN-13: 978-1-846-14184-3; ISBN-10: 1-846-14184-2.]

Page created 18 Jul. 2009

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