Wednesday, 30 May 2018
THE CABINET OF LINGUISTIC CURIOSITIES
A yearbook of forgotten words
384pp. Elliott and Thompson. £14.99.
978 1 78396 358 4
The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones, a compendium of obscure and obsolete words, is designed to be read at a rate of one entry a day, with each word connected to the date under which it appears. For example, “pseudandry”, the use of a male pseudonym by a female writer, appears on November 22, the birth date of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Elsewhere, “antimetabole” (the repetition, in a transposed order, of words or phrases in successive clauses) comes on January 20, the date on which, in 1961, John F. Kennedy said:“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.
The most rewarding way to approach this book is to guess the meaning of the word before reading its definition. It is thus an ideal companion for etymology enthusiasts and aficionados of other languages, ancient or modern.Jones cites many words coined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the fashion for taking or creating words from Latin was at its height. Examples include “supervivant”(a survivor), “transmural” (situated beyond a wall), “singultus” (hiccup) and “breviloquent”(pithy and succinct in speech). Elsewhere, from Ancient Greek, we have “epistolophobia” (the fear of receiving correspondence),“arctophile” (a collector of teddy bears) and“crapulence” (a feeling of sickness caused by overeating or drinking).
Italian readers will recognize “abbozzo”,meaning first draft, which was directly imported in the nineteenth century, and many will discern the French origins of “alamodic”, aseventeenth-century word meaning extremely fashionable. Spanish speakers will immediately detect that “cacafuego” signifies some-thing unpleasant. It was a sixteenth-century term for a blustering braggart.
There is a lot of entertaining trivia here.Under “basiate” (to kiss) we learn that kissing was banned in England on July 16, 1439 to prevent the spread of plague. The Arctic is named not after the white bears that live there, but after the Great Bear constellation that is so prominent in the northern night sky. We also learn that cellophane and laundromat were once proprietary names (see “anepronym”, a trade-marked name that has come to be used generically). Jones might have added “heroin”to that list. And there are legions of euphonic words that might also have deserved inclusion,such as “ingurgitate” (to swallow greedily),“rubiginous” (rust-coloured) or the now archaic “to ostentate”. That fricative, staccato verb resonates so much more forcefully than“to show off”.
WRITE TO THE POINT
How to be clear, correct and persuasive on the page
280pp. Profile Books. £14.99.
978 1 78125 476 9
The culture wars of the past sixty years have been fought in many fields, and on the matter of the correct way to write English, the battle still rages. There remain today the linguistic conservative prescriptivists, such as Simon Heffer and Lynne Truss, who believe that the rules of English must be obeyed. Facing them are the liberal descriptivists, such as Steven Pinker and Oliver Kamm, who say that the language should be allowed to evolve, and that many “rules” of grammar are merely conventions and needn’t be adhered to. (These conventions include not ending a sentence with a preposition.)
Sam Leith presents himself as lying between the two camps. His approach in this guide to improving your English is pragmatic. The most important thing when it comes to writing is to make friends with your reader, so how you write depends on who you are writing to or for. The prohibition on the split infinitive is indeed nonsense; English infinitives aren’t directly comparable to Latin ones, which literally can’t be split. But a potential employer reading your CV might object to them – or to your using “disinterested” where you meant “uninterested”, or “like” instead of “such as”, or starting sentences with “but” – and interpret those usages as signs of a lazy, careless mind. “Knowing your audience is always more important than knowing a set of rules and prohibitions”, writes Leith. This is an eminently sensible approach.
Some may find Leith’s section on grammar somewhat forbidding, especially the part about verb tenses and moods. (Counter-intuitively, the best way to learn English grammar may well be to learn a foreign language, preferably a relatively uncomplicated one such as Italian. This teaches you what every word in any sentence is doing.)Leith’s advice on writing short, crisp sentences is sound, as is the reminder to read more. He excels especially on the importance of cadence and euphony, in making your prose sing. This, too, will endear you to your reader - and it is something that Leith achieves in this first class guide.