Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Books about the Love of Words

People who love words must seem strange to people who are indifferent to words. I am fascinated by word origins. (I sometimes dream that I have traveled back in time and learned to speak Proto-Indo-European. ) This is the source of bemusement to my long-suffering wife.

I am reminded of Fred Pohl's comment, "Number theory is like religion. It's either of no interest or of transcendent interest."

David Crystal pens this installment of the Wall Street Journal's opinion page's "Five Best Books" series with the Watch Your Language, giving his list for the top five books of the history and use of English.

Four more rare, out-of-print books for me to track down. Happily, I have read and reread the fifth book of his list: Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson. Subtitled, "English and How it Got That Way," this book should be on the reading list of every high school student.

Anyone who enjoys Mother Tongue will enjoy Mr. Bryson's follow-up volume, Made in America, a wonderful look at American English which is becoming a world language.

If I can suggest a sixth book to Mr. Crystal list, it would be The Story of English, by Robert MacCrumb, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil.

It is from The Story of English that I first encountered this Bernard Leving quote (which is one huge sentence):
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me", you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness' sake! what the dickens! but me no buts - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

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