The Promises and Pitfalls of Language: Quirky Reference Works for Word Lovers

By Christina Connolly, Clark University, Worcester, MA

As the daughter of a high school English teacher, LJ and SLJ reviewer Christina Connolly is no stranger to dictionaries, but even she learned something from these new books that teach everything from Klingon to Hipster talk. Read on for her take on some scathing writing guides and zany language tutorials that arrived in our bookroom lately.‚ Editor

Recent volumes demonstrating the elasticity of language will delight the lexiphiles in your library. Titles range from examinations of all that is cliché (The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés), slang (Jackspeak: A Guide to British Naval Slang and Usage), or phraseology (The Cheaper the Crook, the Gaudier the Patter: Forgotten Hipster Lines, Tough Guy Talk, and Jive Gems), to grammar and spelling assistance (Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English and The Bugaboo Review: A Lighthearted Guide to Exterminating Confusion about Words, Spelling, and Grammar) and fantastical languages that live in a world of their own (A Dictionary of Made-Up Languages and From Elvish to Klingon), this season’s standouts follow.

Gloriously irritated advice…
Let us begin with the book, and validation, English teachers everywhere deserve: Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English (DOEE) by the very opinionated and gloriously irritated Fiske. Readers are invited to navigate this resource by alphabetically arranged mistake, which makes perfect sense if one is consulting a book because one doesn’t know how to use or spell the word in the first place. Don’t know how to spell indict? Seek its phonetic version and ye shall find indite. Not sure whether to use affect or effect? A full explanation is provided under the former. Even pronunciation is tackled‚ it’s IN-floo-ence, not in‚ FLOO-ence (you can almost hear Fiske muttering fool! under his breath).

To truly incite the author’s wrath, use slang in writing. As instructed under the entry (mad) skillz, slang may be fun to say once or twice, but never‚Ķis it appropriate in your writing. For even more scathing commentary, see restless, commonly misused for restive: If people continue to watch television more than they read, and listen to music more than they think, descriptive dictionaries, which feed on foolishness, will surely claim that restive does mean restful. A helpful compendium for even the most literate among us, not to mention a refreshingly conservative addition to the increasingly liberal domain of dictionaries, DOEE is a confrontational work challenging the evermore yielding traditions within the discipline of lexicography.

…and gentle reminders
Award-winning English teacher Sue Sommer’s The Bugaboo Review, on the other hand, unapologetically embraces the spoonful of sugar method when it comes to correcting grammar, spelling, and general word ouchies. To wit, The Bugaboo Review is embellished by cartoon characters Bug and Boo as it instructs, explains, and prevents the most typical errors, many of which occur when trusting the average word-processing program. Indeed, as she explains, one cannot count on Word to underline further if one is supposed to use farther. The Bug-Rev, as Sommer’s students have dubbed it, is the culmination of a career’s worth of self-published reviews supplied mainly to students (but often requested by their parents). The material is based on Sommer’s firsthand experience of correcting written work and oral presentations. An overview of the parts of speech opens the book, followed by the Worst Offenders (is it it’s or its?), the Body of the Bug (which discusses the difference between conscious and conscience, for example), and the Final Stingers‚ the dreaded ei vs. ie difficulty. A list of the most common misspellings concludes the resource. Entries are brief, practical, and, as promised, lighthearted; this handbook is worth the extra weight in the backpack or briefcase.

Worth its weight in gold
As author Christine Ammer avers, clichés are the fast food of language. That said, The Facts On File Dictionary of Clichés provides definitions and etymology of over 4000 commonly used expressions without offering opinions on whether or not they should be used. Indeed, the closest Ammer comes to editorializing is her inclusion of the word cumbersome when describing the usage of the phrase at the end of the day. This third edition, containing both the trendy and the extinct, reveals the ever-changing interests of the English-speaking world; for example, the addition of carbon footprint represents an entire field of terminology that has exploded into the mainstream within the past five years. Cleared up is the question of the correct couldn’t care less vs. the inexplicably accepted could care less. The currently overquoted it is what it is is not so modern after all, as William Safire is credited for locating its first use in the Nebraska State Journal in 1949. Indexed and thoroughly referenced, Clichés is an amusing browse and a useful tool for settling arguments among word nerds; learning may be a dangerous thing, but you’ll be a walking encyclopedia after this read, which is more fun than a barrel of monkeys, no matter how you slice it.

Tough talk
Speaking of cliché’s, Alan Axelrod retrieves some golden oldies in his The Cheaper the Crook, the Gaudier the Patter: Forgotten Hipster Lines, Tough Guy Talk, and Jive Gems. The title, quoted from the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, exemplifies the lingo of the Greatest Generation that Axelrod does not want us to forget. Inspired by Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe’s heroic, albeit terse response of Nuts! to the Germans when asked to retreat at the Battle of the Bulge, Axelrod has amassed this colorful lexicon of regularly employed terms and phrases from the Depression era through the Age of the Beatnik; in fact, an entire chapter is devoted to GI jive. Definitions and, whenever possible, origins are provided. Talking like a hipster or a tough guy is entertaining, and you can easily do it yourself. Taking a date to a nightclub? No, you’re trucking your oomph girl to a frolic pad. Who knows? This material could really come on like gangbusters with texters. This fun but informative retrospective for young and old alike captures the robust flavor of American life during the first half of the 20th century.

To immerse yourself further in a GI jive of sorts, check out Jackspeak: A Guide to British Naval Slang and Usage by Rick Jolly, a former Royal Marines doctor for 24 years, who has a decidedly ribald sense of humor. The raunchiest book of this group, it is sure to bring a chuckle to readers who don’t flinch at the abundant scatological, sexual, and sexist references. Accompanied by Tugg’s cartoons, this is a comprehensive, cross-referenced compilation of vernacular used by the seafaring sector. Definitions and examples of usage are supplied. Although occupying a narrow genre, this book is good for a laugh and for thinking of ways to talk about others in terms they probably won’t understand. Indeed, Americans will be hard-pressed to recognize the majority of inclusions. For instance, the next time a coworker annoys you tell her she’s drawing too much water. Even better, call your buddy a bucket of shit‚ it’s a compliment! Bring a copy of Jackspeak to your favorite sailor‚ or frat boy.

Preparing for comic-con?
Stephen D. Rogers’s A Dictionary of Made-Up Languages: From Elvish to Klingon: From Ad√ªnaic to Elvish, Zaum to Klingon‚ The Anwa (Real) Origins of Invented Lexicons is a one-stop shop of cataloged gibberish that ranges from lively phrases to completely concocted lexicons. Part I devotes two or three pages to 130 languages, ranging alphabetically from Adunaic to Zaum and including Martian, Troll, and Utopian. Each entry includes some configuration of the following elements: Spoken By, Documented By, Behind the Words, Language Derivation, Language Characteristics, A Taste of the Language, Some Useful Phrases, Numbering System, Philological Facts, In Their Own Words, If You’re Interested in Learning the Language, and For More Information. Part 2 provides practical advice if one is attempting to devise one’s own language. Part 3, entitled Language Games, includes several more eccentric dialects, (e.g., Jst Cnsnnts), a bibliography, and a glossary. Filled with fun facts, thoughtful quotes and trivia, this is an excellent resource for the fanciful polyglot in your life.

Finally, From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (Oxford University Press) examines invented languages from angles linguistic, historical, and psychological. Editor Michael Adams has assembled a collection of essays on the creation, inner workings, and consequent waxing and waning of various vernaculars, essentially answering the question: Why do we make up languages and what makes them work? Much homage is paid to the genius of J.R.R. Tolkien and his many made-up tongues (Elvish, Sindarin, Quenya, etc.); reportedly, Tolkien spent more time creating his famous lingos than he did on narrative. Also discussed are the usefulness of international auxiliary languages such as Esperanto, and conversely, regional tongues Hawaiian and Maori, which are experiencing a resurgence. Also included are pieces on the enduring popularity of Klingon; gaming languages (e.g., Simlish); the oirish languages of James Joyce, Paul Muldoon, and Samuel Beckett; and the creative vocabularies Newspeak, of George Orwell’s 1984, and Nasdat, used in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Eight appendixes correspond to the eight chapters, adding even more meat to this word stew: an excerpt of Shakespeare’s Hamlet translated into Klingon, and a glossary of gaming slang, to list just a couple. You don’t have to be a sci-fi geek to enjoy this fascinating read; merely being a word nerd will do.