I’ve reviewed several serious reference books in this blog. But language books don’t all have to be serious to be worth reading. Sometimes they can be fun and entertaining—and still teach you something. Here are three books that fit that description.
Roy Blount (pronounced blunt) Jr. is the author of many books on various topics, a frequent panelist on Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me! and a member of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel. Alphabetter Juice is a follow-up to Alphabet Juice, both humorous works of word stories.
Blount espouses the concept of sonicky, a word he created from “sonic (evocative of sound) and kinesthetic (evocative of body movement).” Sonicky words, “the most expressive English words,” he writes, “engage the ear, the vocal apparatus, and by implication other parts of the body: call me suggestible, but I can feel hump, which first appeared in English as part of humpback, in my upper back and shoulders.” It’s an interesting concept, one that leads Blount to look at all manner of words, including ad hominy, gag, and knickknack.
The entries are arranged alphabetically (more or less), so you can jump in and out any way you’d like, making it a great read when you don’t have much time to read. Read a couple entries while your computer boots up. Read a couple more while the cupcakes bake. Read a couple of pages just before bed. (Now you know how I get my reading done. Cupcakes, anyone?)
One note: I read this book on my Kindle. I love the advantages of an e-reader, but Blount’s book deserved better treatment than it got. There were many odd line breaks and some typos, neither of which exist in the print edition. I’ve read other e-editions that don’t have this problem, so I know this isn’t a universal problem. Whoever prepped the book for e-readers needs to hire a proofreader (I’m available). Do yourself a favor with this particular book: read it in print.
On the Dot
On the Dot by Alexander Humez and Nicholas Humez is ostensibly about that mark we use for periods. Really, though, chapters just start with the different uses of the dot, such as in Morse Code, as bullets, with musical notes, and as part of several punctuation marks. The discussion then goes wherever the words lead the authors. You might get a brief history of Morse Code and ciphers, such as the cipher George Washington used, or an explanation of bullet lists followed by an entertaining history of the word bullet to mean the projectile that comes from a firearm.
The brothers Humez know their stuff, too. Writers independent of each other, they’ve coauthored several books on language, including Latin for People and Alpha to Omega. Their writing is rhythmic and witty, their topic light and entertaining. On the Dot is a fun read for a dreary day.
How to Read a Word
Historical lexicographer Elizabeth Knowles knows words and how to build “word files.” She’s worked on the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And she knows how dictionaries work.
Her book How to Read a Word introduces readers to the art of creating word files and, thus, dictionaries. Knowles walks us through the process, sharing plenty of word stories along the way. You can read the stories behind wordhoard, Twitterati, vocabulary, and more.
Knowles encourages readers to build their own word files. In the introduction, she writes:
Encountering an unfamiliar word or phrase … is a provocation to find out more. … There has probably never been a time when someone who wishes to explore words has had richer resources to hand. I hope that How to Read a Word will offer its readers a chance to make full use of what is now available to us all.
The book is smartly written. A little more formal than either On the Dot or Alphabetter Juice, it is nevertheless accessible to general readers and is a wealth of information for word lovers.
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