Summer Reading

by Angela Tung on June 21, 2011

Happy summer solstice, everyone!  To celebrate this official first day of summer, we’re offering some reading recommendations, some new, some classic, all jam-packed with word goodness.

If you’ve ever wondered how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be, read Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, which focuses on one prolific contributor (the “madman” of the title), or for a whole history of the OED, Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

If you’re interested in lexicographical founding fathers, you might like the classic The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell, as well as the recently released The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, by Joshua Kendall.

More keen on deciphering dictionaries? Then try How to Read a Word, in which historical lexicographer Elizabeth Knowlesoffers clear guidance on how to explore the various aspects of words,” including “pronunciation, spelling, date of first use, etymology, regional distribution, and meaning, all spiced with intriguing examples.”  To hone your writing skills, check out How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, by Stanley Fish.  If presentation skills are your concern, then Jerry Weisman’s Presentations in Action: 80 Memorable Presentation Lessons from the Masters might help.

If you don’t like language “sticklers,” you might like You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, by Economist correspondent Robert Lane Greene. Greene asserts that “language is about communication rather than just rules and that debates about language and its rules are often really about politics.”

Slang your thang?  Check out The First Dictionary of Slang, 1699, first published in the 17th century and reissued this past October.  The dictionary was “the first work dedicated to slang words and their meanings,” and was “aimed to educate the more polite classes in the language and, consequently, the methods of thieves and vagabonds, protecting the innocent from cant speakers and their activities.” (If you really want to go all-out, try the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green.)

In the realm of language history, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way examines the origins of English, English dialects, spelling reform, prescriptive grammar, and swearing.  In The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, available October 2011, Henry Hitchings “examines the present state of the conflict [of the English language], its history, and its future,” where the ideas of “proper usage” came from, and “grammar rules, regional accents, swearing, spelling, dictionaries, political correctness, and the role of electronic media in reshaping language.”

If you can’t wait till October, take a look at Hitchings’ 2008 book, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, which plays up the “acquisitiveness of English” and its propensity for collecting words from “more than 350 other languages.” The book “has a wide sweep, from pre-Roman Britain to online communities.”

Available this August is John McWhorter’s What Language Is: And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be. The linguist examines languages of all types, from “vanishing languages spoken by a few hundred people to major tongues like Chinese,” and “how languages across the globe. . .originate, evolve, multiply, and divide.”  Meanwhile, in On The Death and Life of Languages, Claude Hagège focuses on vanishing or dying languages, how they die, and how they can be revitalized.

In her recent Boston Globe column, Erin McKean talked about “nevers” and Mardy Grothe’s collection of quotations, Neverisms: A Quotation Lover’s Guide to Things You Should Never Do, Never Say, or Never Forget (as in, “Never let ‘em see you sweat,” “Never let a crisis go to waste,” “Never ruin an apology with an excuse”).

Finally, if novels are more up your alley, you might like The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan, which tells the story of a broken heart through dictionary definitions (“I, n. Me without anyone else”); as well as Milorad Pavic’s The Dictionary of the Khazars. Originally written in Serbo-Croatian, the novel “purports to be the historical record of the Khazars, a fictional Indo-European tribe that vanished in the 10th century.”  The entries are alphabetical but “can be perused at random, read start to finish or back to front.”  As well, two different versions are available, “designated ‘male’ and ‘female,’ and differing by only 15 lines.”

For a list of these books, see below.  Happy summer reading!

Biographies

Dictionaries

History

How To

Quotations

Fiction

Stan June 22, 2011 at 11:39 am

Another one for the OED history list: K.M. Elisabeth Murray’s superb Caught in the Web of Words.

Angela Tung June 22, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Thanks Stan! Also just saw your blog post regarding Through the Language Glass.

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