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More books to give (or get)

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 30, 2008 12:27 AM

As I say in today's Word column, it was a very good year for language books of all kinds. Here are a few more worthy titles that didn't make it into the print list:

"An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction," by Anatoly Liberman (University of Minnesota, $50). When a dictionary labels a word "origin unknown," it doesn't mean there aren't any good guesses. In this introductory volume of Liberman's project, he treats 55 English words of uncertain origin, from older (clover, toad) to newer (pimp, jeep), laying out the arguments for various etymologies and explaining which is most likely.

"Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling," by David Wolman (Collins, 24.95). In the course of this engaging ramble through our orthographic thickets, Wolman visits the Gutenberg Museum, pickets the Scripps National Spelling Bee, gets tested for dyslexia, and investigates the progress of spellchecking.

"When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge," by K. David Harrison (Oxford, $17.95). A linguist's close-up guide to some of the many ways of knowing -- of mapping, counting, keeping time, preserving history -- embedded in languages that are disappearing.

"Let's Talk Turkey: The Stories Behind America's Favorite Expressions," by Rosemarie Ostler (Prometheus, $18.98). Homegrown idioms explained (except when they're inexplicable) by a careful researcher and entertaining writer.

"I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like: A Comprehensive Compilation of History's Greatest Analogies, Metaphors, and Similes," by Mardy Grothe (Collins, $14.95). Well, some are greater than others, but you're sure to find something memorable, like Brigitte Bardot's "Peanut butter is pate for children."

"Four-Letter Words: And Other Secrets of a Crossword Insider," by Michelle Arnot (Perigee, $13.95). I don't do crosswords much (I'm a double-crostic fan), but I found this guide enjoyable until -- through some binding error, presumably -- instead of the last chapter, my advance copy had 20-plus pages of one of those "Law of Attraction" books. (An Amazon search suggests that final copies are all fixed -- though maybe there's a market for the crossword-law of attraction combination?)

Previously mentioned in the course of 2008:

"The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus," by Joshua Kendall (Putman, $25.95). The life and times of Peter Mark Roget before he was a household name.

"Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change," by Lawrence A. Weinstein (Quest, $16.95). A writing teacher and playwright explores some psychological aspects of punctuation and grammar.

"The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English," by Mark Abley (Houghton Mifflin, $25). What's happening to English in L.A., Japan, cyberspace, and beyond.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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