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The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Give the Gift of Pedantry

If there is a logophile—word lover—on your holiday gift list, you can’t go wrong with What in the Word? by Charles Harrington Elster. Elster is a formidable scholar, but he has written a book that is fun to read, yet packed with information.

Scattered throughout the book’s seven chapters are astute quotations, “fascinating facts,” and “bodacious brainteaser” quizzes on grammar trivia. Numerous sidebars hold forth on topics that range from frivolous to esoteric. We learn, for instance, that “there are more synonyms for drunk than for any other word in the language”—over 2,660 of them (including quilted, upholstered, and iced to the eyebrows). And did you know that Noah Webster, who wrote the first American dictionary, was an insufferable prig; and Socrates was an “arrogant runt” whose wife despised him?

Each chapter has a brief introductory essay, followed by a series of questions and answers. The questions are from the author’s readers and fans. This format could quickly become tedious, but the discussions are on topics every armchair linguist has wondered about, and the answers are crisp, informed, and entertaining.

Chapter One deals with “word histories, mysteries, hoaxes, and hype.” A couple of examples: all decked out does not come from sailing. It comes from dekken, a Dutch word meaning “to cover.” Xmas (as a stand-in for Christmas), thought by some to be a modern monstrosity, has been around since the sixteenth century.

Chapter Two covers bad usage that is gaining acceptance. The author’s contempt for comprised of (always incorrect) and ’til (use till instead) will warm every nitpicker’s heart. In the chapter’s intro, Elster discusses good and bad change: “Change that springs from creativity, that is advanced by need, and that is reinforced by utility is unobjectionable. But change that results from ignorance, pomposity, eccentricity, a mania for fashion, or a desire for novelty is suspect.”

Chapter Three offers a trove of esoteric words: The philtrum is the groove that runs from the nose to the upper lip. A logophile loves words, but a logolept is obsessed with them. A librocubiculist is one who likes to read in bed (the author made that word up—he does that).

Chapter Four deals with “distinctions, clarifications, niceties, and other little things” that may help writers refine their style. Use a, not an, before historic, heroic, and other words that begin with an audible h. Avoid in regards to (make it in regard to) and shun irregardless (just say regardless). Anyone who disagrees is a grobian (“a rude, clownish, blundering oaf”).

Chapter Five, on the spoken word, mainly addresses pronunciation. When we say homage and flaccid, we should pronounce them HAHM-ij and FLAK-sid, not oh-MAHZH and FLASS-id. We should also enunciate clearly and not say “claps” instead of collapse, “yerp” for Europe, or “jeet” when we ask, “Did you eat?”

Chapter Six covers Americanisms. Jim Crow was originally a nineteenth century song-and-dance number. Thomas Jefferson made up the word belittle. And who knew that glitch is a Yiddish word? In this chapter the author claims—apparently in all seriousness—that the word ginormous was invented by his daughters. (If so, Dad should be proud that ginormous is listed in the 2014 edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary.)

The seventh and final chapter is a catch-all for information that “just didn’t fit anywhere else.” Here are some highlights:

• The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains around 616,500 words. (Approximate number of words in the German language: 185,000.)

• The average educated adult’s vocabulary: twenty-five thousand to forty thousand words.

• The word nth is one of English’s very few legitimate vowel-less words (two others: hmm and psst).

• The word set has more meanings (almost two hundred) than any other word in English.


Pop Quiz

Here are a few quiz questions from What in the Word? by Charles Harrington Elster. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. We write P.S. to add something at the end of a letter or an email. What does P.S. stand for?

2. Which is the correct spelling:
A) forceable
B) force-able
C) forcible
D) forcable

3. Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg: Which poet wrote which famous first line?
A) “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”
B) “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”
C) “It was many and many a year ago”

4. What well-known proverbs are hiding in these pompous paraphrases:
A) Hubris antedates a gravity-impelled descent.
B) Abstention from speculatory undertaking precludes achievement.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. In Latin, postscriptum; in English, postscript.

2. C) forcible

A) Frost, “Mending Wall”
B) Ginsberg, “Howl”
C) Poe, “Annabel Lee”

A) Pride comes before a fall.
B) Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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