Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book review: Origins of the Specious

I wrote a review of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman. The review was originally published in Technical Communication, Volume 57, Number 3, August 2010. This has been my favorite book that I reviewed for them so far.

Who hasn’t had a vicious argument about the proper use of a word or whether English is a malleable language? Maybe that’s just me. But if language is your game, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language is your book. It’s a blooper highlights reel of English, explaining fables from the myth about the number of Eskimo words for snow to the misconception that all double negatives are incorrect.

Origins of the Specious discusses these misuses and myths with a wry sense of humor. It even includes some lightly dirty humor, such as a bit of history on the Yiddish word putz. When discussing that newspapers were “abuzz” about two Oxford dictionaries giving the okay to willy-nilly split your infinitives, the authors comment, “It was a slow news week” (p. 17). In explanation for why the word ain’t is no longer considered acceptable language, they say, it “got too big for its britches” (p. 49). An entire chapter that had me snickering is “Lex education: Cleaning up dirty words.” If you want to bore the curse words out of unruly children (or inform it out of them, depending on their disposition), you might read them this chapter.

The authors use humor to get a basic idea across: English is a liquid language (regardless of how thick we would like that liquid to be). Throughout the book, they say that English is changed by “the people who actually use the language day in and day out” (p. 43), that is, all of us. My favorite example is the hunt for a single “all-purpose pronoun for people that can be masculine or feminine” (p. 141). We all know how frustrating it is to write around “he/she” and “he or she.” But try as we might, no word has successfully taken hold of this empty space. Thon made a valiant effort in 1858 but fell by the wayside. Regardless, it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Occasionally, their humor can get a bit harsh, but in a teasing way. With regard to the literal meaning of “beg the question,” which Aristotle originally used in 350 BC, they say, “It’s time for the purists to get a life—one in the twenty-first century” (p. 182). In another example of harsh but humorous reprimands, they say, “If you think ‘octopi’ is classier than ‘octopuses,’ go stand in the corner” (p. 184). Away I went.

At times, this book had me laughing out loud for the dorky language jokes. And if it doesn’t provide enough information for you, the bibliography in the back provides 30 other resources. I definitely recommend Origins of the Specious for language junkies with a good sense of humor.

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