A collection of newspaper columns muses on the eccentricities of English and other languages.
In this second edition of her volume of Bill Bryson–esque columns, Janssen draws on decades of teaching and learning languages to engage in a lighthearted exploration of grammar, etymology, family history, cultural exchange, and anything else that interests her. The columns, arranged thematically, deal primarily with the author’s lifelong fascination with languages—her native English, the Spanish she studied and taught, her parents’ Dutch and Italian—and her enthusiasm for sharing them with others. Many address the benefits, both financial and personal, of studying multiple languages, and the columns on grammar are refreshingly un-crotchety (enthusiastically endorsing, for instance, the singular they). Janssen is a knowledgeable teacher and enthusiastic student, but she is also charmingly self-deprecatory: “Keyboarding is not the only type of boarding at which I have failed. I’ve also flopped (literally, onto concrete and into ice banks) at skateboarding and snowboarding.” Although the book does not rely heavily on research citations, the information presented is solid and avoids the unsubstantiated folk etymologies that too often attract amateur linguists. Janssen’s insights into the nature of language are strengthened by her familiarity with several beyond her native tongue, allowing her to explore the cultural implications of hygge and schadenfreude as well as the value of the Spanish word “estadounidenses,” a concise way to describe U.S. citizens while allowing “American” to apply to the rest of the hemisphere. Columns celebrating the tradition/marketing ploy of naming a “word of the year” are particularly delightful (“There is no need to suffer the lengthy awkwardness of writing on your Christmas wish list, ‘I want one of those collapsible monopods to attach to my camera or cell phone for better selfies,’ when you can just say, ‘Dear Santa, please bring me a selfie stick!’ ”). Readers in search of engaging, entertaining, and occasionally thought-provoking essays should enjoy the pieces that make up this collection.
A language enthusiast offers a compilation of amusing and singular columns.