Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield

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Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield

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Category: Reference
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A guide not so much to how to speak, write and use our English language, but a history and state-of-the-nation report into the fluxility that makes it so remarkably rich. The book is a success, and brightens up what could have been a dry, academic topic no end.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: July 2009
Publisher: OUP
ISBN: 978-0199574094

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How do you pronounce the word ghoti? Go on, say it out loud – you must recognise it, and I dare say you've eaten one enough times.

OK, I'll help. You know gh sounds like f, like it does in rough. You know o sounds like i, just like in women. And ti is clearly the same as sh, as in notion. Yes, ghoti is pronounced fish. It's just a very blunt way of saying the rules that control the language, and how it is spelled, pronounced, used, and changes over history are all over the place.

And indeed, that is where we get so many of our words from – all over the place. Fish itself is too old to worry about where it came from, but I dare say it soon led to the verb to fish. Since then we don't just now fish for fish, we fish for compliments and more.

This is just my blundering way to suggest what the book does, in a much more sprightly and eloquent way – it discusses the evolving tongue we here on this website are using. Within living memory people would have used two words to spell web site, but it's contracted itself to one block of letters. How do we know? The dictionary makers at the esteemed OED have a Corpus, a thorough, computer-generated base of language usage, which updates regularly now, given modern technology, and proves to the digital readers involved just how words are used – or misused.

The sections describing the Corpus here are a bit overfriendly towards it, as I would take umbrage at what it seems to be based on, described in these pages as the blogosphere. That's a word I wouldn't dare to use, but Word recognises it without a nasty red line, so that shows I'm behind with things. The internet has increased massively the publication and other usage of so many words, technical terms, slangy neologisms and so on, and in contrast to other, prior dictionary makers using stately books of classical literature, this new generation of compilers have a gamut of data to cover.

This doesn't mean that the usage is correct. The Corpus has come up with the fact that the majority of people trying to use the word minuscule, spell it as miniscule. And now, dammit, Word accepts both. If not dammit, dammit.

Some of the many instances in this book are quite surprising. I would have thought the sad-sack person sense of anorak was quite old, but no, it's been seen by the Corpus-watchers to date only from 1984. The adoption of quite commonsensical words does at times appear unusual – we spoke of having enthusiasm a full century and more before we used the verb to enthuse. I'll limit my quotations and samples, but this book is full of them, and what at first glance did appear to be a hard-going, older, even more pedantic brother to Eats, Shoots and Leaves, is all the better for them.

That's the wrong companion piece to mention anyway, for this book is very educative when it comes to facts and thoughts about the language, while not particularly trying to be instructive and correctional. It's not so much a usage book, as Butterfield calls them, but a biography of the language. The book introduces concepts that we might have come across – and definitely have used – but would not know the word for. The schwa is a very common sound in spoken English, and its influence goes some way to explain the minuscule change. It's the 'uh', or 'a', or however you spell it – the beginning of the word 'above', unless one has the plummiest of accents.

The Corpus is a large concept itself, which provides the backbones of this book as well as the dictionary it was created to serve. It lists words not only with all their usages, but also in usage order, so the more commonplace words are recognised. It has often been said 2,000 words in any language are enough to get by. Here the truth is revealed as slightly different – it all depends on what you mean by getting by. The Corpus says asyndetic is unusual enough to come up by chance once every 3,000 books, and is here twice in the same paragraph. I'll be a second, lesser author making it more well-known.

And it's to the credit of Butterfield that it is one of many concepts that come across very clearly. The handy use of tables, asides, notes where relevant and so on make the structure of the book handily lively and approachable for all. The formation of the book, with the premise set out initially, and other academic stylings, are worn very lightly. The author doesn't treat it as a polemic or anything – he is more happy than I am to accept the changes to the language and treat it as a friendly evolution. Me? – I'm the type to question our very own Bookbag webmistress for using 'bottom' as a verb.

That difference between me and the author did not prevent me from enjoying the book and learning a lot from it. While I won't be very keen on the internet's alterations to the language becoming the acceptable norm in future, I'm quite happy for the language I use to be so varied. And if I push it enough the word webmistress will be so far up the Corpus that Word will recognise that as well. (About now I wanted to include a pun about words dying out like lemmas falling off cliffs, but it wasn't funny.)

This book didn't get the proof-reading that Oxford dictionaries need – J Edgar Hoover's name was muddled, and the use of miniscule changed over the reading of the first couple of chapters something drastic. However it shares a common sensibility with its title – a breezy and engaging look at lots of things we never thought about when it comes to how we speak and why. For providing that surprisingly enjoyable look at English, we give it a firm recommendation.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you're interested in the correct usage of English then we can recommend English Grammar In Use by Raymond Murphy.

Buy Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield at Amazon.com.


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Magda said:

I think that any of the Pinker's books (The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought) would be excellent further reading as he shares this descriptive rather than prescriptive aproach and believes in "living language" being mostly right. So does David Crystal.

Kent Butler said:

I've already blown my book budget for the next month or two, but I'll get to Mr. Butterfield as quickly as I can. If it is not included in Damp Squid, I would like to nominate "free gift" as one of the most asinine expressions of all time; perhaps the single most asinine.

Thank you.

Kent Butler, Puzzlemaster