THE HOUSE OF WORDS: A Celebration of Language by Willard R. Espy

THE HOUSE OF WORDS: A Celebration of Language

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More etymology froufrous? Oh dear, yes--but, unlike recent flavorless compilations by Susan Kelz Sperling and Eugene T. Maleska, Espy's potpourri works hard (with bulldozer whimsy) at being cute and lively. Thus, in most of the 16 little chapters here, Espy (An Almanac of Words at Play) is visited by some famous dead person, who joins him in an imaginary conversation about words. (The device may remind you of a grade-school pageant.) In the best sketch, Lewis Carroll shares a celebration of words with certifiable birth-years: Espy contributes real ones (e.g., ""blatant,"" 1592, coined by Spenser in The Faerie Queen) while Carroll offers only Jabberwocky words. Less amusing: Thomas Bowdler--as in bowdlerize--listens while Espy lists scatalogical etymologies of seemingly clean words; Charles Darwin lends Espy a copy of The Voyage of the Gurgle (all about animals that look like letters, vowels, or consonants); King James I inspires an arch mini-history (in blank verse) of the writing of the King James Bible; Dr. Johnson defends his Dictionary definitions; Aesop chats about words and phrases with animal etymologies; Beau Brummell talks about words of apparel; and both FDR and God get involved in some tired parodies of jargon-writing. Plus: a few foreign-language tongue twisters, a truly tedious War of the Words (""the Verbs burst forth as one from their hovels and slaughtered the unsuspecting Nouns in their beds""), and heaps of Espy's own light verse. There's a genuine eagerness to please here, as well as a sincere delight in word-play. And language-lovers will find a fair number of curious etymologies. But only those with a highly developed taste for mild, wheezy humor will put up with these giddy goings-on.

Pub Date: June 15th, 1981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster