One of the benefits of being an armchair linguist is that I have absolutely no qualms about veering from, say, Baugh and Cable’s A History of the English Language or the nominally rebellious but practically canonical works of David Crystal to less academic but infinitely more pleasurable works of dedicated amateurs like Bill Bryson. Our Magnificant Bastard Tongue falls into the latter category (though McWhorter sometimes resembles Crystal in tone), not only because McWhorter is a sort of nuovo-linguist, the sort who would wear sneakers before tweed jackets, but also because this particular book was intended to be a shorter and more informational introduction to McWhorter’s sphere… essentially a 250-page brochure for modern linguistics.
- n. An act of deliberate killing of another human being.
Murder is a word which is familiar to just about every English speaker in the world; it gets used every day in newspapers and television, especially given the glut of crime shows on the air recently. Every Law & Order or CSI uses it, though mostly in the criminological sense of an intentional killing (“malice aforethought” is, I believe, the part official definition for murder in the first degree).
- adj. wastefully extravagant.
“Prodigal” may be one of the most frequently misused words in the English language, and it’s all the Bible’s fault. Because the Bible is a rich part of the western world’s literary tradition, even for people who are not believers, the story of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11-32), or at least the phrase “prodigal son” has entered into our cultural consciousness in reference to someone who goes away and eventually returns home. Which is, of course, not at all what it means.
In fact, the phrase “prodigal son” doesn’t even exist in the original texts, but English translations of the Bible favored chapter headings, at which point “The Prodigal Son” began to appear on the above passage; you can see it at work in the Douay-Rheims Bible, for instance. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, here it is.
- Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
- Publisher: Metropolitan
- Year: 2010
- Pages: 320
Those of you who know grammar snobs (I am admittedly one, myself) may be tempted to think that we are all William Safires, wrinkling our noses at slang and treating publicly-dangled participles like a fart in church. In fact, linguists (as distinct from grammatical pedants) are a pretty liberal bunch, or at least those of us studying since the second half of the twentieth century.
Studying linguistics and etymology is something of a hobby of mine; I’ve read Baugh’s A History of the English Language, which is a more formal academic work, as well as books which would count as, I suppose, “pop linguistics” or “pop etymology”: Bryson’s Made in America and The Mother Tongue; Hitching’s The Secret Life of Words; John Mann’s excellent informal history of the alphabet, Alpha Beta; and probably others which don’t immediately spring to mind.
In the canon of linguistics/etymology books written for a general audience, there is perhaps no figure more formidable than David Crystal; he’s written more than a hundred books, most of which are related to language in some capacity. A whole-hearted descriptivist, he’s a sort of anti-William Safire, accepting that that Prescriptivism is a lot like the Empire: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers. ”