Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE WORD ON WORDS by Norman German


The Play of Language

by Norman German

Pub Date: March 31st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1460999769
Publisher: CreateSpace

The English language gets pulled up by its roots for purposes of entertainment, enlightenment and vocabulary building in this sprightly linguistic romp.

The author, an English professor, introduces readers to some of the knottier words in the language through an approach that mixes analysis, history and lots of engaging anecdotes. His method is to seize on dusty old lexical roots, usually from Latin but also from Greek, Old English, Norse and French, and follow their branchings through the modern English words derived from them, with plenty of lore and intriguing digressions thrown in to make the pedagogy go down easy. He traces the Latin verb spectare (to watch), for example, through its many incarnations, from spectacle to expectant, while tossing in allusions to Shakespeare and Byron and an aside on the evolution of false eyes as defensive camouflage in the animal kingdom. German takes a meandering path through the lexicon, always happy to wander off on oddball excursions to, say, palindromes (“senile felines”), spoonerisms (after Rev. Spooner, who reminded one bridegroom that it’s “kisstomary to cuss the bride”), bizarre phobias (arachibutyrophobia, he says, is the fear of sticky peanut butter), lyrically named bird collectives (exaltations of larks, wisps of snipe and parliaments of owls), unsafe anagrams (rearrange mother-in-law and you get “woman Hitler”) and miscellaneous life lessons (“[n]ever use a poly-syllabic Latin word where a one-syllable Anglo-Saxon word will do”). Along the way, German defines over 1,500 big, troublesome words and reinforces reader retention with engaging exercises, including crossword puzzles and fill-in-the-blank quizzes that require one to insert the words aardvark, blasphemy, cremains, cyborg and eunuch into plausible sentences. It’s a fun read that sparkles with photographs, bright colors and crazy-quilt fonts. But this smorgasbord is still a serious textbook—readers will gain not just a store of factoids, but a sharpened ability to analyze new words and a deeper appreciation for the history and beauty of the language.

Lively, informative and thoroughly beguiling.