The Word

Turning up volumes

A haul of new language books

By Jan Freeman
September 6, 2009

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Book publishing is in trouble? You wouldn’t know it from the pile of new language books and the publishers’ promises of more to come.

This month’s three headliners, coincidentally, are third editions of books first published in the 1990s, and the heavyweight of the group is “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” Since the book’s debut in 1998, Bryan Garner, a Texas attorney and legal usage maven, has established himself as the go-to guy for comprehensive, traditional language advice. He considers the evidence, he admits that fashions change, but his goal remains the same: to clue you in about usages that some people - possibly your teacher, employer, or grandmother - may consider ignorant, annoying, or otherwise less than ideal.

The new edition, nearly 1,000 pages, has a helpful glossary of language terms and an interesting editorial twist: A Language-Change Index, giving Garner’s estimate, on a scale of 1 to 5, of how close a disputed usage is to full acceptance. Aggravate for “annoy,” for instance, rates a 4, or “Ubiquitous but {hellip}”: That is, a few purists still despise it, but most Americans accept it. You won’t always agree with the rating, but it’s a useful reminder that word usage changes - except when it doesn’t. (A lot of the usages rated 1, or “Rejected,” look like simple goofs to me; if wreckless, intergral, spue for spew, and the like really had to be recorded, why not put them on a list of common - or not so common - misspellings?)

Patricia O’Conner, in “Woe Is I” (Riverhead, $22.95), also covers the conventional wisdom, though at a merry skip rather than a resolute march. The new edition adds chapters on spelling and pronunciation and keeps the original puns (“Comma Sutra,” “Plurals Before Swine”). But despite the jokes, O’Conner can be more conservative than Garner; she still thinks using aggravate for “irritate” is just plain wrong, and claims we must “diagnose strep,” not “diagnose Amanda with strep.” Garner gives aggravate a 4 ranking - almost OK! - and calls the “diagnose her” usage “too common to be called erroneous.” (That’s why you need more than one usage book.)

Also back, and much expanded, is “The F-Word,” (Oxford, $16.95), Jesse Sheidlower’s compilation of the variations on our favorite four-letter word. This is no naughty diversion, though, but a scholarly dictionary, with a history of the F-word taboo and hundreds of illustrative quotes.

Take, since it’s printable here, the entry for the euphemism frak:

“Coined on, and chiefly associated with, the television show ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ In the Original Series (1978), used exclusively as an interjection; in the Reimagined Series (2003-2009), used more broadly as a euphemism for many forms of [the F-word], both figurative and literal. Spelled frack in the Original Series scripts, frak in the reimagined series.” There follow illustrative quotations dating from 1978 (from a “Battlestar” shooting script) to 2009 (from the Calgary Herald).

It’s not all usage nerdery out there, however. For lighter-weight word fun, try out some insults from other languages with the help of “Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit” (Perigee, $12.95) by Robert Vanderplank and Stephen Dodson (known to his blog readers as Language Hat). The title comes from a Spanish putdown; others, funny or crude or both, come from sources as diverse as Latin, Welsh, Hindi, Chinese, and Xhosa. A mild example is the Danish putdown for a dimwit, “du har jord i hovedet - you have dirt in your head.”

Another international collection - of idioms, not insults - is Jag Bhalla’s “I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears” (National Geographic, $12.95). Bhalla isn’t trying to be useful - the original languages aren’t shown - or scholarly; his sources, he admits, may be outdated or otherwise fallible. His phrases, organized by theme, are intended merely to celebrate human imagination: A happy person can be “like a maggot in bacon” (German) or “happy as castanets” (Spanish) or “happy as a fiancé” (Russian). (And “hanging noodles on your ears” is Russian for “pulling your leg.”)

Charles Hodgson, oenophile and etymology podcaster (at Podictionary), combines his interests in “Wine Words” (P2Peak, $17.95), a “mixed case,” as he calls it, of wine-language lore. Did you know that bunch (as in grapes) and zinfandel are words of uncertain origin? That Cadillac is a 14th-century French town whose name took a long, winding route to Detroit? That Jefferson was the first person to mention nebbiolo in English? The book doesn’t sparkle quite as brightly as Hodgson’s “Carnal Knowledge,” an exploration of body words, but it’s a charming blend nonetheless.

Are you thinking that almost any sorting principle could produce a word book? Mardy Grothe, author of “Oxymoronica,” is back to confirm that suspicion; his new book is “Ifferisms” (Collins, $15.99), an annotated collection of sayings that start with “If.” If we had more space, I could quote a few; if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

E-mail Jan Freeman at For past columns, go to