Six books for word friends
I’m a word person. I like meeting words, listening to them, and learning their stories. It’s no surprise, then, that I quite enjoyed the following books, as they allowed me to get to know some interesting words. Happily, these particular materials are not dull or didactic. Rather, like a dinner guest you are glad to invite, they bring lively, intelligent insights to the table. If you also like words and enjoy making friends with them, allow me to introduce six entertaining books: two compelling collections; two friendly guides; and two expert accounts.
An international collection: Other Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely from Around the World by Yee-Lum Mak
A lovely set of words gathered from around the world, this collection offers readers a vocabulary for the “odd and wonderful” parts of our lives. It’s enjoyable to turn the illustrated pages of this little book, and to consider the world at large, via the special words found here. It pleased me no small amount to learn that “the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees” can be called “komorebi” (in Japanese). Likewise, I was charmed by the discovery that one particular site in my house is a “cwtch” (in Welsh) – not just a small space, but also a safe place and a hug, combined.
A historical collection: The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal
This collection is a fascinating tour of the English language, led by notable linguist and skilled storyteller, David Crystal. One hundred words are presented for individual examination, and to illustrate more generally how our vernacular has evolved over the centuries. My interest in this volume was kindled initially by the surprisingly titled entry, “Pork – an elegant word (13th century),” and also by the remarkably early appearance of “Dude – a cool usage (19th century).”
A pronunciation guide: You’re Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words and their Tangled Histories of Misuse by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras
This is an amiable guide with a good sense of history. This book startled me several times with unfamiliar information. Do you correctly pronounce “detritus” or “remuneration”? I’ll admit it: I didn’t, before looking through these pages.
A guide to names: The Origin of Names, Words and Everything in Between by Patrick Foote
Foote provides an informal survey of the origins of the names of various animals, countries, planets and more. Written to be amusing and accessible, this book is a quick read that nonetheless offers a lot of information about many things got their names. Author Patrick Foote, of the YouTube channel Name Explain, hopes that readers will enjoy some of these quirky facts enough to talk about them with other people.
An insider’s account of the world of Scrabble: Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar and Geek Underground by John D. Williams
The first executive director of the National SCRABBLE Assocation presents a lively introduction to this celebrated game of words and also to its players. After a 25-year tenure with Scrabble, Williams has many stories to tell about the game and its culture. Even if you are not a hard-core Scrabble player, there is interesting content here. I was drawn in by the chapter on “How a Word Gets Into the Dictionary.” I finished, still thinking about the problems presented by, and Williams’ experiences with, offensive or “notorious” words, within the context of this game.
An insightful account of lexicography and life by the OED’s former Chief Editor: The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It all at the Oxford English Dictionary by John Simpson
This is an astute book that is part dictionary history, part social history, and part personal history. Simpson is an expert investigator of words and an engaging narrator, wry and perceptive as he details some of what he experienced and learned while working on the principal historical dictionary of the English language. At times, his story is a poignant one. For decades, Simpson worked closely with verbal intricacies, yet his youngest daughter, now an adult, is autistic and remains nonverbal.
Individual words have their own stories, much as people do. Intrigued by both, I appreciated all six of these different books. My hope is that you too will enjoy conversing at length with one or more of them, now that you’ve been introduced.