Saturday, July 26, 2008


Linguist and writer David Crystal takes a tour of British (and global) regional dialects under the pretext of doing research for the BBC. In the meantime, he answers all kinds of fascinating questions about the English language that you hadn't realized you'd been dying to ask.

Q: Why the heck do we use Q when it always needs a U and the Anglo-Saxons did just fine without it? ("Queen" used to be "Cwen." Makes sense to me.)

Q: Why have natural English words like "frequentness" and "delicateness" fall out of use?

Q: Where did the word "blurb" come from?

Q: What does a spider have in common with a rock?

Q: What got into Lady Godiva?

Q: Why would the Welsh go and name one of their towns Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch? (Does anyone else see 4 consecutive Ls in that word or are my eyes just blurring?)

BY HOOK OR BY CROOK is a lot of fun, particularly for language enthusiasts. Some of the Britishism can get a little bit tedious, particularly for American readers, but Crystal is a forgiving author and the book is easy to dip into and out of--no need to go cover to cover.

It is also chock full of tidbits and cocktail conversation. (At least, my personal version of cocktail conversation, which maybe explains why I don't get invited to more parties.) Crystal talks about a monk named Brother Orm who tried really hard to codify English spelling. Orm made the valid point that instinctively if we use two consonants we like to pronounce the vowel before it short; one consonant yields a long vowel. "Having," for example, should be spelled "havving," and "coming" should be "comming." Alas, no one else wanted to start spelling words the way they should be. But he tried.

For some questions, Crystal has no answers. Such is the nature of the English language that some things will never make sense. For example, Who made up those ridiculous group designators (eg a bevy of geese, a herd of cows, an unkindness of ravens, a murder of crows)? Crystal suggests some of his own. Some of my favorites:

An absence of waiters
A rash of dermatologists
A bout of estimates
An exces's of apostrophes

1 comment:

Cheryl said...

I love books like this. Sounds really fun.