It's All in a Word by Vivian Cook

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It's All in a Word by Vivian Cook

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Category: Trivia
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A missed opportunity, as far too many bitty essays on the English language, and its appearance and changes, add up to a decent trivia compendium but nothing of more substance.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 224 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846680069

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Ah, the English language. That sine qua non, the prima facie lingua franca of the world. Prima inter pares when it comes to taking influence and words from other tongues, and responding in kind, to the chagrin of the French. We all use it, and in this day and age we can update an internet dictionary overnight to absorb all the neologisms, like "iPhone"; we can put the entire output of an author into a computer and it will count every word use up so we can find a fingerprint of a writer's style. It's a never-ending, fluid, changing entity, for better or worse.

This book is a collection of mini-essays concerning a host of approaches to our language. People have considered in what order the young learn their colours, among many other things. We see glimpses of what it is like to learn a language as an adult, and considering the fact that English at least has copious rules where sentences change meaning through their structure, and throw up hurdles such as prepositions, I don't envy those learning it late in life.

We get introductions to Spoonerisms, considerations of regional variances, and pally contractions of friends' names, and we see how unusual the political speeches of Tony Blair were when put aside regular English use. Vivian Cook adds in some more personal articles, such as one regarding the high-falutin' language used in public transport announcements. He might have a point, when foreign travellers are expected to brace on an airplane when there's hardly an instance of us using that verb elsewhere.

But when we find what is a word? two thirds of the way in we have to raise an eyebrow. And actually, I was going all Roger Moore before and after that. What particular relevance were the airport identification codes, or the different natures of addresses in different cultures?

This is an unusual approach, and while there is a breadth to the content there was not enough use made of a fun, scattershot styling I might have preferred. There are no box-outs, no asides, no tables of trivia to match the shallow extent we get in the essays. Instead I was left non-plussed by several, frustrated by some of what I did get not going far enough, and annoyed by hints of what might have been. This was most true when I found phrases along the lines of 'us linguistic researchers find this fascinating' - well, so do I. But what do you as a scientist feel about this, how do you go about finding this, that and the other out?

There are also hiccups as we go along, unfortunately. There have never been 60 million people living in England - Britain, yes. When looking at the divide in language that is the Atlantic, elevator and lift are in the wrong place.

Still, this remains an entertaining little read, if not one to keep and refer to often. There are suggestions of word games to be played, and mini-quizzes too. I enjoyed the one where English words have been absorbed into Japanese, and thoroughly changed through their own rules to create some Pidgin formulation that's neither here nor there. Get the answers right and see just how often common people's names tend to follow rules allowing you to guess at gender, see how broad your vocabulary might be, and more.

But the biggest flaw for me was that the book both flirted with several serious, in-depth topics (juvenile absorption of vocabulary, words as seen from the cognitive sciences), but broke any fine efforts along those lines up with something trivial. It showed the virtuous variety of the language we're all using, but in trying to match that came out as a little woolly, a lot scatterbrained, and far too diverse itself. It comes across like a random collection of newspaper columns, although doesn't appear to be such.

Also, I have seen a lot of similar content, done in a more approachable way, with more fun and breeziness but also depth, in Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield. While this is mostly very readable (I'm still none the wiser what general semantics are, however), the hotch-potch of contents and their formatting was disappointing.

I must still thank Profile Books' kind people for my review copy.

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