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THE WORLD IN SO MANY WORDS by Allan Metcalf

THE WORLD IN SO MANY WORDS

A Country-by-Country Tour of Words That Have Shaped Our Language

By Allan Metcalf

Pub Date: Sept. 20th, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-95920-9
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

An entertaining and instructive etymological, around-the-world tour of English. Metcalf follows up the recent America in So Many Words (not reviewed), co-authored with prominent linguist David Barnhart. In his witty style and emphasis on semantics more than historical linguistics, Metcalf resembles Safire more than a scholarly Ruhlen, Onions or Skeat. He is usually clever when discussing the backgrounds of foreign words that have won a green card to English, such as “It was a stupid bird”—when discussing the Portuguese meaning of the dodo. Elsewhere, the professor settles for the lowest form of humor: “What’s gnu?” or “Boa o boa! You wouldn—t want to exchange hugs with an anaconda.” The recipe for turning a victim into a zombie and the reasons why the tsetse fly was never beaten are examples of extralinguistic information that make the book enjoyable reading. For pure etymology, however, the author neglects to give us the native meaning of a term more than half the time, and almost always when throwing in several other borrowings from a language in the final paragraph of each entry. In the Virginia Algonquian (Powhatan) entry, for example, the words moccasin, raccoon, opossum, tomahawk, and persimmon are not explained, even though their meanings are more interesting than the locale of their coinage. Some words are common enough to keep the reader intrigued, like amok, bikini, gung ho, java, lingo, and pajamas, but too many words involve animals, cultural terms, foods, or plants that the average reader never encounters. A well-written and -organized book on word origins for the global English speaker.