Monday, June 11, 2012

The Mother Tongue

by Bill Bryson

Grade: 4 1/2 stars

Thoughts: This is a book on the English language and on language in general, written by Bill Bryson, so it was pretty much a given that I'd love it. And I did indeed.
In fact, I liked it so much, and it was so chockerblock full of interesting tidbits and stories and observations, that I don't know where to start, exactly. So...let's start with page 60.

--On page 60, Bryson some words which really ought to be used more. They are so useful and specific. I am going to start using a few of them immediately:

aposiopesis: Wikipedia describes it as "a figure of speech wherein a sentence is deliberately broken off and left unfinished, the ending to be supplied by the imagination, giving an impression of unwillingness or inability to continue"; Bryson simply describes it "a sudden breaking off of thought".

crytoscopophilia: "The urge to look through peoples [sic] windows as you pass by their houses." (from the Urban Dictionary)

velleity: Bryson describes it as "a mild desire, a wish or urge too slight to lead to action". (This one I like especially. I am full of velleities all the time.)

--On page 72, he talks about the history of change concerning the word "nice". Now, I knew that it had changed a lot over the ages, but not quite this much.
"A word that shows just how wide-ranging these changes can be is nice, which is first recorded in 1290 with the meaning of stupid and foolish. Seventy-five years later Chaucer was using it to mean lascivious and wanton. Then at various times over the next 400 years it came to mean extravagant, elegant, strange, slothful, unmanly, luxurious, modest, slight, precise, thin, shy, discriminating, dainty, and - by 1769 - pleasant and agreeable. The meaning shifted so frequently and radically that it is now often impossible to tell in what sense it was intended, as when Jane Austen wrote to a friend, 'You scold me so much in a nice long letter ... which I have received from you.'"
--On page 171, he lists a bunch of words which are used differently in America vs. Britain. For instance, cotton candy vs. candy floss, and downspout vs. drainpipe. What I found interesting, and not really surprising if you think about it, was that I used about half of the American words and half of the British words. Being Canadian, this seems to generally be the case, whether it be for pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, etc.

And there's tons of other stuff, but I can't very well quote the whole book, can I?

I don't really have any criticisms, although it would be interesting to see an updated version. This book is as old as I am, and I'd be interested to know his opinion on some more modern developments.

1 comment:

Aquinas' Goose said...

Okay, definitely need to add that to my reading list, thanks!