THE SECRET LIVES OF WORDS by Paul West

THE SECRET LIVES OF WORDS

KIRKUS REVIEW

This wonderfully curious and eclectic volume falls somewhere between a quirky dictionary and a romantic sonnet.

Novelist West (The Dry Danube, p. 422, etc.) is irrevocably enamored with etymology, and his “short homage” to some 400 words can be thoroughly enjoyed by reading A to Z—or by simply “dipping” into it, as the author himself recommends. From abacus to zymurqist (the two word histories boil down to “dust to dust,” West points out), the entries range from the complete evolution of a word to merely a quick and surprising note on its modern usage. West truly believes that words are living, organic things with an etymology and a personality, and his passion sets a romantic backdrop for some enigmatic histories. His “choice of words” reveals a romantic and inquisitive personality, where the terminology of sports and cooking, medicine and Macbeth abound. He tells us that “amethyst” means “not drunk,” that a “companion” is one who eats bread with you, and that “orchid” and “avocado” originate from various cultures’ terms for “testicle.” From “poetry” to “placenta,” from “mistletoe” to “marzipan,” West's collection brims with peculiar gems. He quips that “we might say alias is aka aka,” and in another entry he claims that “you do not need this word until you find it.” He also contemplates the origins of curious phrases like “stone the crows,” “kick the bucket,” and “screw the pooch.” To West, joy is epitomized by language—“the silk of our so-called civilization”—and tragedy is exemplified by the dead-end term “etymology unknown,” or EU. Words are a metaphor for his universe and he believes that “we rehearse on words for the mysteries of the cosmos, which, of course may not even have a beginning.”

Word enthusiasts will find trivia and treasure here.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-15-100466-8
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2000




MORE BY PAUL WEST

FictionCHEOPS by Paul West
by Paul West
NonfictionMASTER CLASS by Paul West
by Paul West
FictionA FIFTH OF NOVEMBER by Paul West
by Paul West

SIMILAR BOOKS SUGGESTED BY OUR CRITICS:

IndieMAGNIFICENT WORDS TO LIVE BY by Hamilton  Brower
by Hamilton Brower