Between the Covers
by Katie Haegele
Are you a lexiphile? You know, a person who loves words? Me too. In fact, I just made that one up. I love the sounds and shapes of words, their shades of meaning, the way you can hurl them or play with them depending on your mood. Actually, love is too weak a word for what I feel for words--I lurve them. You know, I loave them. I luff them with two effs.
So imagine my excitement when I discovered Weird and Wonderful Words, a new book by the editor of Verbatim, a language periodical that lives somewhere between academic journal and fanzine. The summer 2003 issue, for instance, contains a column on the proliferation of English words about telling a lie and a glossary of words coined on Seinfeld--Seinfeldisms! Perhaps I should write in with the Woody Allenisms I used above.
Editor Erin McKean is something of a word wunderkind. Like fellow American lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, she swiftly made her way through the editorial ranks and currently holds the post of senior editor at Oxford University Press USA. (For his part, Sheidlower became something of a celebrity when, at the age of 32, he was named the first American editor in the Oxford English Dictionary's 146-year history.) If lexical fame sounds less than glitzy to you, consider the pope-like
infallibility of dictionaries.
Whether you're writing a memo or playing Scrabble, Webster's always gets the last, ahem, word. Unless, of course, you're a true lexiphile, and then a dictionary entry is just an excuse for a merry debate--with someone like McKean, for whom "finding a truly weird and wonderful word is like meeting a gorgeous person who is also a good cook and will help you move."
Weird and Wonderful Words takes things that sound funny or mean something unusual or have some crazy spelling--like gaberlunzie, a Scottish word for beggar--and presents them with wit and charm. And love.
In fact, that's something all the best books about language have in common. Unlike more prescriptive and irritable treatises (this means you, William Safire), they have an infectious affection for the words themselves. Because when we talk about parts of speech, what we're
really talking about is life--people and their interactions with the world. As McKean says in her introduction: "[The words] let you see, for as long as you care to dwell on them, some of the truly bizarre things that people have had, done, used, invented, feared or thought."
Inspired by the joy McKean's book produced in me, and in a fit of extreme nerdiness, I posted a query for reading suggestions to the Linguist List, a listserv used by thousands of linguists worldwide. Confirming what I already knew--that word nerds are the awesomest people in the entire world--dozens of scholars wrote to share their favorite nonacademic language books.
One was David Carkeet's three-book series (Double Negative, The Full Catastrophe and The Error of Our Ways), which stars "a brilliant but bumbling linguist, Jeremy Cook, who solves murders and saves a marriage, then languishes on the fringes of the academic world," according to Susan Meredith Burt, the linguist who wrote to me about him. And recommended by a Finnish academic was Marina Yaguello's Language Through the Looking Glass: Exploring Language and Linguistics, a discussion of the language studies to be found within the work of that harebrained mathematician Lewis Carroll.
For online language geeks there's the indefatigable Word Spy (www.wordspy.com), aka Paul McFedries, who tracks new coinages practically instantaneously. Take "celesbian," for example (this means you, Tatu).
And then there's The Way We Talk Now, a scrumptious collection of the language-in-society pieces Geoffrey Nunberg did for NPR's Fresh Air. Writing originally intended for radio is really great to read--it's both pithy and lyrical--and Nunberg's topics run the gamut from the n-word to the naming of a generation.
Oh, and by the way, it turns out McKean's book uses a real word for word lover: logophile. Guess she looked it up.
Song of the City: An Intimate
History of the American Urban Landscape, a loving four-part breakdown of our town and its people, was Nathaniel Popkin's highly regarded first effort. It was also almost literally Philly's answer to A Walker in the City: Popkin researched the city primarily by schlepping all over it, just as Alfred Kazin did in his native Brooklyn. On Sunday Popkin will read from his new novel in progress.
Aug. 3, 7pm. Free. Molly's Café
and Bookstore, 1010 S. Ninth St. 215.923.3367.
Questions? Comments? Write to email@example.com.