Monday, June 26, 2017

All-purpose words

He laid the spent pistol carefully on the whatnot beside Anna's bed.
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

Among the handiest words in the English language are those that can mean almost anything. And we have a lot of them, words like whatchamacallit and thingamajig that we use when we don't know or can't remember the proper word for something. If it's a name we're trying to come up with, we say whatsisname or whatshername. Used often enough, such words can turn any conversation into a guessing game, but at least they avoid awkward pauses while we stammer trying to think of the proper word or name.

Whatnot shelves
Another such word is whatnot, which we often employ in the sense of etcetera or miscellaneous. As the above line from Eleanor Catton's novel The Luminaries illustrates, the word has also been used for a piece of furniture, in this case what we might call a bedside table, one which might hold just about anything, especially when we empty our pockets at the end of the day. I can recall my mother referring to what she called whatnot shelves. They held knickknacks, trinketsdoodads, gewgaws and whatnot, usually pretty little things that didn't belong anywhere else.

These words often have a variety of different spellings. What Americans call whatchamacallits, the British call what-you-may-call'em or, at one time, what-d'ye-call'em.  Thingamajigs can also be called thingumbobs or thingums or thingummies or any other variation.

In Listening to America, Stuart Berg Flexner tells us that the word gadget started as naval slang to refer to "any small mechanical contrivance." The word soon spread to the general population. Flexner mentions other such words, including gilguy, dingbat (before it came to be used to refer to dimwitted people), doohickey and gizmo.

Jeffrey Kacirk includes several such all-purpose words in Informal English, a dictionary of odd words and phrases used, or once used, in various regions of the United States. The Kansas word is doflickety. In Nebraska, he says, they preferred optriculum., while in Maine the favored word was dingclinker.

In Alabama, he writes, when they didn't know the specific name of an ailment they would call it hicapooka or hicapookum.

Kacirk says Union soldiers during the Civil War invented the word skyugle, which could be used as either a noun or a verb to mean just about anything, as in "He had skyugled along the front when rebels skyugled a bullet through his clothes."

In Maine they liked the word with-its to refer to what most of us in America now call sides, or anything from asparagus to zucchini that is served with the main course at a meal.

Without such all-purpose words, most of us would be at a loss whenever we get forgetful or simply don't know the proper terminology.

Friday, June 23, 2017

New beginnings

Every second can mark a new beginning. Open your eyes and see: the world is out there and it wants you.
Nina George, The Little French Bistro

Memorize those lines from the middle of Nina George's The Little French Bistro and perhaps you can save yourself the trouble of reading this novel, which really isn't very good. All the book's wisdom is right there. The rest is just illustration and is less inspiring than you might think for a story about people remaking their lives.

The main character is Marianne, a 60-year-old German woman stuck in an unhappy marriage for most of her life. She runs away to Paris, planning to drown herself in the Seine. Rescued, she is put in a hospital, from which she escapes. Having seen an artist's rendering of the city of Kerdruc in Brittany, she decides to go there to complete her mission, that of killing herself.

Once in Kerduc, she encounters people who start transforming her into a new woman, one who is beautiful and admired and who has a place in the world, working in that little French bistro for a start. What's more, she meets and falls in love with that French artist whose work drew her to Kerdruc in the first place.

Meanwhile, other characters find their lives made over, as well. For a time the novel reads like a French version of the British movie Love Actually in which everybody finds love with somebody else. But then Marianne's husband, Lothar, tracks her down, and she must decide if the new Marianne can survive resuming life with the old Lothar.

The novel has its moments, but mostly it feels manufactured rather than authentic.

Readers may think The Little French Bistro is a sequel to The Little Paris Bookshop. In truth it is more the other way around. Bookshop was first published in Germany in 2013, with the English translation, which became a bestseller, appearing in 2015. Bistro appeared first in Germany in 2010, and the English version was published this month on the heels of Bookshop's success.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is it still funny?

I reread Three Men in a Boat recently and it wasn't funny at all -- well, the bit where they get lost in Hampton Court was, though not quite as funny as it used to be.
Susan Hill, Howard's End Is on the Landing

When I read Three Men in a Boat a few years ago, I didn't think it was funny at all, though my whole reason for reading it was that I had seen it mentioned several times as a British humor classic. Susan Hill thought it funny the first time she read it, but not the second time years later. Humor, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder, and each beholder's idea of what's funny changes over time. And each generation laughs a little differently at different things. It's probably no wonder that Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889, doesn't seem as witty as it once did.

Yet Hill notes that the books of P.G. Wodehouse remain funny today, even a century after some of them were written. Why has his humor held up, while that of other writers has fallen flat with time? (To be fair, Wodehouse has never been funny to some readers, both a hundred years ago and today.)

I have in my library a number of books by humorists popular around the middle of the 20th century. How does their humor hold up in the second decade of the 21st century? To get some idea, I decided to read short excerpts from some of these books and try to determine if, at least in the eye of one beholder, they are still funny.

Robert Benchley
Robert Benchley (1889-1945) was a well-know humorist in his day. In addition to his magazine pieces, he also had a radio show and appeared in a number of movies, including Foreign Correspondent. The book I own is Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949), which collects articles he wrote for The New Yorker and other publications, mostly in the 1930s. I read the last essay in the book called "Why Does Nobody Collect Me?" and found it very amusing. One can imagine Dave Barry or some other more recent humorist writing something similar about the fact that while books by certain other writers are considered highly collectible, their own books are practically worthless.

James Thurber (1894-1961) was a contemporary of Benchley, and a rival since they both sold pieces to the same publications and appealed to the same readers. I read "My Own Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage" from Thurber Country (1953). Some of Thurber's comments about the eternal battle of the sexes might raise a few eyebrows in 2017, since some attitudes have changed a great deal over the decades, yet the piece remains witty.

Richard Armour (1906-1989) was a favorite of mine in the 1960s, and I confess I still find him funny.  I read his brief biography of Herman Melville in his 1960 book The Classics Reclassified. It has lines like this: "Melville was treated kindly by the cannibals and would have been pleased with the way he was plied with coconuts and papayas had he not noticed that Thanksgiving was approaching." That's as funny now as it was when I was in high school.

Sam Levenson (1911-1980) was a teacher who became a writer and then a television star. He was roasted at the very first New York Friars' Club roast in 1950. I read the chapter "Wedded Blitz" from his book You Don't Have to be in Who's Who to Know What's What (1979). As with Thurber on the same subject, some of Levenson's material might strike some people as insensitive today, but still most of it is funny. It has lines like, "Alone can be very lonely, especially if you have nobody to tell it to. Apparently the time had come for God to approach Adam with, 'Have I got a nice girl for you'!"

Art Buchwald
Art Buchwald (1925-2007) wrote a popular column of humorous commentary for the Washington Post for many years, and he even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. From his collection of columns I Never Danced at the White House (1973), I read one called "Inspector Columbo at the White House," published during the Watergate investigation. It imagines TV detective Columbo interviewing suspects at the White House. It happened that I had watched two Columbo episodes the night before I read this piece, so I found this very funny. Yet this is probably the most dated of all the excerpts I read simply because it was so topical. If you are too young to remember Columbo or don't know who H.R. Haldeman or Martha Mitchell were, you probably wouldn't find this amusing at all. Topical humor doesn't age well, as you can tell from Johnny Carson's monologues on Tonight Show reruns.

Erna Bombeck (1927-1996), like Buchwald, wrote a popular syndicated column for many years. I read the first few pages of her book The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank (1976) about her family's move to the suburbs. Because the lots in the Diamond, Ruby, Pearl and Zircon sections of the development are all taken, they settle for the Frankly Fake section. I don't find her exaggeration-based humor funny at all now, but I don't recall liking back in the 1970s either.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Novelty in novels

There is a certain kind of writer who seems to feel that unless he is breaking apart everything that came before him, composing something that in his own view is astonishingly new, he is not writing great literature. ... Writers like this have given novelty a bad name.
Wendy Lesser, Why I Read

Every novel is, by definition, novel. Even the worst of novels are, to some extent, new and original. They are inventions, creations, the stuff of thought. No two are alike. Yet some novels seem more inventive or creative than others. But does this make them better? Not necessarily, Wendy Lesser argues in her book Why I Read.

Pages from The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
Sometimes novelty in novels manifests itself graphically. Photographs or drawings can be inserted as illustrations, the way William Boyd does in Sweet Caress or Umberto Eco does in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The first pages of chapters in Alix Christie's Gutenberg's Apprentice use graphic elements common at the time Gutenberg's Bible was printed, although this may have been the publisher's decision rather than the author's.

More commonly novelty shows up in the prose itself, and this can be more problematic. Sometimes the inventiveness works, and sometimes it doesn't.

We can find countless examples of this from as far back as the earliest novels. Lesser discusses Don Quixote in this context, for example. Or we might think of the way Herman Melville inserts informational chapters about whales and whaling periodically in Moby-Dick or the way William Faulkner strings thoughts together into single convoluted sentences in The Bear. More recently Rabih Alameddine wrote I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters. It is about a woman who tries to write a book about her life, but abandons each attempt after the first chapter. Yet taken together, these first chapters tell the whole story. Or consider The Luminaries, a novel reviewed here last week, in which Eleanor Catton gives us a sense of accelerated action, like a chase at the end of a movie, by gradually shrinking chapters at the end of the novel and revealing less and less detail. She makes the end of the story, actually its beginning, seem more exciting than it actually is.

Yet such novelty works only if it helps to tell the story. It is the story, after all, that matters. As Lesser puts it, "This is the paradox that lies behind formal inventiveness: you can only achieve an exemplary kind of novelty if it is not, primarily, what you are trying to achieve." Novelty must be the means to an end, not the end itself. Only the readers themselves can decide whether the novelty works, or if it is just novelty for its own sake.

Wendy Lesser's prime example of writers who "have given novelty a bad name" may surprise many. That's because James Joyce is widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the English language, and his Ulysses has repeatedly been ranked as the best novel of its century. Lesser thinks these critics are judging style over substance. She rates Dubliners and Portrait of then Artist as a Young Man as Joyce's better works of fiction. In Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake, she argues, Joyce was just showing off.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The conversation of children

Children do not converse. They say things. They ask, they tell, and they talk, but they know nothing of one of the great joys in life, conversation.
Charles M. Schulz, You Don't Look 35, Charlie Brown!

Charles Schulz, of course, made a very successful living with a comic strip, Peanuts, featuring children engaged in conversation. That was where the humor lay. No reader ever believed that children of that age really stood around and talked about things like theology (Linus), Beethoven (Schroeder) or even baseball (Charlie Brown). That, like a dog who imagined himself a World War I flying ace, was fanciful and, thus funny.

In a collection of Peanuts strips published in 1985 called You Don't Look 35, Charlie Brown!, Schulz goes on to say, "Then, along about twelve, give or take a year on either side, two young people sitting on their bicycles near a front porch on a summer evening begin to talk about others that they know, and conversation is discovered. Some confuse conversation with talking, of course, and go on for the rest of their lives, never stopping, boring others with meaningless chatter and complaints. But real conversation includes making questions, and asking the right questions before it is too late."

I believe children learn to converse long before age 12 in most cases, but Schulz was right in saying that it is a skill that takes time to develop. And some people never develop it. Either they just talk and expect others to listen, or they just listen because they can think of nothing to contribute, at least not until after the conversation is over. I count myself among the latter.

I wrote a post a few days back called "Accidental memoirs" in which I said writers sometimes write their memoirs when they think they are writing something else. For Schulz, his comic strip was his memoir, a record of his own life told through the stories of conversing little children. His 1985 book was also a memoir. Groups of panels are preceded by a few paragraphs from Schulz about incidents in his life that inspired them. The lines above come from a page about a time in which the cartoonist was invited to speak to school children. He writes that he didn't know what he was going to say until he stood up and told them the importance of asking their parents questions about their lives.

"Don't stop until you have learned something about your father's first job or your mother's early dreams," he says he told them. "It will take energy but it all be infinitely worthwhile, and it must be done now. It must be done before it is too late." The pages that follow are filled with panels showing Charlie Brown and the gang talking about their parents and what they have learned about them. The last one in the series is one that ran on a Father's Day. It shows Lucy bragging about her dad, saying he has more credit cards, etc., than Charlie Brown's dad. Then Charlie Brown then tells her about going into his dad's barber shop. "I can go in there anytime, and no matter how busy he is, he'll always stop, and give me a big smile ... and you know why? Because he likes me, that's why!"

Charlie Brown's memory was also that of Charles Schulz, who knew the importance of asking questions but also that there are some important things you know without having to ask.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Hard to hold, hard to put down

Eleanor Catton's massive 2013 novel The Luminaries manages to be both hard to hold for long and hard to put down. Set in New Zealand in 1865 and 1866, the novel blends a Victorian style of storytelling with a modern, nonlinear style of storytelling.

The story itself involves mysterious deaths, stolen treasure, missing people and lives gone astray. Catton's novel has so many characters that there may be no true protagonist. Yet four characters most hold our attention. Anna Wetherall is an alluring young woman forced into both prostitution and opium addiction. Emery Staines is a young man even more innocent and gullible than Anna, whom he loves. Francis Carver, though he actually appears very little in the book, is nevertheless always in the immediate background, the cause, along with Lydia Wells Carver, of much of the harm that comes to others in the story.

The narrative begins in the middle of the story, when several men in Hokitika, a gold-mining town, meet secretly to talk about what has been going on and what should be done about it. One of these men is Walter Moody, a newcomer to town who eventually represents both Wetherall and Staines when they, not the Carvers, are taken to court. These trials all but end the story, but then Catton takes us back to the beginning to show us what really happened, although even then leaving huge questions unanswered.

Early chapters are long, detailed and proceed at a leisurely pace, yet gradually Catton speeds up the pace as chapters get shorter and shorter and tell us less and less. She gives her novel an astrological structure with 12 parts, one for each sign, and chapters with titles like "Jupiter in Capricorn" and "Mars in Aquarius." Yet, thankfully, the story itself has little to do with astrology, except perhaps in Catton's mind. The real message of the novel is not that we are influenced by the stars. Rather we are influenced, for good or ill, by the actions of other people, many other people. And, as in the novel, none of us is the main character.

Monday, June 12, 2017

When writers write back, part 2

William F. Buckley Jr.
"Thanks for your bittersweet review," William F. Buckley Jr. wrote to me in a letter dated Feb. 23, 1979. His letter, written on National Review stationery ("Dictated in Switzerland. Transcribed in New York," it says at the top), was in response to my review of his book A Hymnal: The Controversial Arts, which appeared on Jan. 28.

I thought bittersweet to be a good choice of words, for my review had, in fact, been full of both high praise and sharp criticism. His letter, too, was bittersweet, concluding as it did with the words, "Thanks for your encouragement," as if my humble review in a relatively small newspaper could somehow encourage one of the great political commentators of his generation.

The main thrust of his letter, however, had to do with my complaint that some of the columns reprinted in his book seemed dated, specifically one about Ronald Reagan's choice of a running mate in 1976. "For your information -- and maybe I should make this plain in an introduction in a future collection," he wrote, "I attempt to republish pieces that are essential to a narrative -- in the case you cite, the big event between the primaries and the convention was Reagan's designation of Schweiker for VP. If I had left it out I would not in my opinion have adequately told the political story of 1976." I am sure Buckley was right. Old newspaper columns become part of the historical record, and who was I to say that history is dated?

Steve Allen
Another letter from a very prominent author was dated Jan. 27, 1994. Steve Allen, who had long been one of my favorite television personalities, had sent his complaint not to me but to my editor. You always know you're in trouble when someone with a complaint goes directly over your head without first giving you a chance to respond. Such a complaint, from another prominent individual, once nearly got me fired. This time, however, the blow was softened considerably by a note from Allen's secretary that accompanied his letter. (The letter actually was signed by his assistant, but had been dictated by Allen.)

Besides being a TV star, Allen was a prolific writer, and I had reviewed his book Make 'Em Laugh, supposedly a guide for comedy writers. I had written that the book "comes across more as bragging than instruction." Allen ignored this dig, but was incensed that I wrote, "Allen accuses Johnny Carson of stealing much of his material from Allen, Jonathan Winters and others. Allen says Carson has 'the worst reputation in the field of comedy.'"

To this Allen said, "Mr. Allen has never made any such assertion, either in print or speech. For whatever the point is worth, it is his personal opinion that Mr. Carson has a very good reputation indeed in the field of comedy.

"There is, however, one specific regard in which Carson's reputation is low, among his peers, and that is as regards the narrow question of plagiarism: the use of other comedians' material." I thought that is what I had written, but Allen apparently read my quote from his book as being more broadly interpreted than either he or I intended.

The hand-written note from his assistant, Karen Hicks, says as much. "Between you and me," she wrote, "the quote was obviously referring to Johnny's reputation for plagiarism. This letter was dictated by Mr. Allen under (sic) my signature. Apparently he wants it made very clear that except in this one area he has nothing bad to say about Johnny."

The worst part of this exchange, from my perspective, was that Steve Allen didn't sign his letter, so I don't have his autograph.

Friday, June 9, 2017

When writers write back

Authors seem to be of two minds about those who review their books. On the one hand they realize that a good review, or even any review, can spur sales of a book. It's like free advertising. Yet critics can often be critical, failing to appreciate the work these authors may have invested years of their lives in producing. Negative reviews have to hurt.

When I reviewed books for The News Journal of Mansfield, Ohio, from 1972 to 2010, the standard practice was to send two copies of each review to the publisher. One of these copies would then be sent on to the book's author. Rarely did an author ever acknowledge my reviews, but on rare occasions that did happen, and I have kept most of these letters. I will share some of them.

Among the earliest letters I received was from Jack Douglas in March, 1973. Douglas had been a comedy writer for the likes of Bob Hope, George Gobel, Laugh-In and a variety of other radio and TV shows. He was a frequent guest on The Jack Parr Show, which is where I first heard about him. He also wrote humorous memoirs, one of which, The Jewish-Japanese Sex & Cookbook and How to Raise Wolves, is the book I reviewed. He had married a Japanese woman, Reiko, which helps explain the title. He said my review "helped to make my year" and went on to say that he and Reiko had purchased a hotel in Maine. "I'll either get a good book out of it or burn it down for the insurance," he added. That book he later called Benedict Arnold Slept Here.

Three years later I received one of the most generous responses to a review ever sent to me. It came from Rene Jordan, author of an early Barbra Streisand biography called The Greatest Star. His first order of business was to apologize for that title, which he said was his publisher's idea. He wanted to call it A Portrait of Barbra. Jordan said that most of the reviews of his book had focused on its juicy gossip, or lack of same. "When I read your review," he wrote, "I felt someone had at last understood what I basically had set out to create: a critical analysis of a specific performance at a particular point in her life." This surprised me, for I didn't think my review had been all that positive. He concluded, "And when you find that kind of insightful and responsive review, you should let him know."

Evan H. Rhodes, author of a fine novel called The Prince of Central Park, sent a hand-written note in which he said, "I know of no greater reward for a writer than to be so beautifully interpreted by a peer."

Robert R. McCammon
I am not a fan of horror novels, but I did review Robert R. McCammon's Usher Passing. I don't recall what I said about it, but I know I didn't like the novel well enough to keep it. (Although I enjoyed his Boy's Life and Gone South very much.) His letter, dated May 14, 1985, simply expressed his appreciation for my review and apologized for his late acknowledgement of that review.

After retiring from auto racing, Sam Posey became interested in model railroads and wrote a terrific book about his new passion called Playing with Trains in 2004. I interviewed him by phone and packaged that interview with my review of the book. "I'm flattered and thrilled," he wrote in an email. I had mentioned that Posey had raced at Mid-Ohio, a track near Mansfield. He said, "Your mention of Mid Ohio brought back happy memories. I won there in 1972 when I beat David Hobbs in a Formula 500 race."

Perhaps the longest letter from an author I ever received was from Edward Frey, who wrote a somewhat obscure book called To Please a Chinese Wife. He dissected my review in detail, taking exception to just one point I made. The most surprising thing he wrote was that three readers had sent him copies of my review.

Don't get the idea that authors have always received my reviews with grace and thanksgiving. I will mention some notable exceptions next time.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Literature, as viewed 100 years ago

I want to return once again to the New Century Book of Facts, which a hundred years ago was a popular one-volume reference book. It was the equivalent of what the World Almanac became later in the 20th century and what Wikipedia is today. This time I will mention some things that caught my eye as I leafed through the section of the book devoted to literature.

There is quite a bit about literature in the Grammar chapter of the book, as I mentioned last time, and many pages of the Biography chapter are devoted to writers, but the Literature chapter gives 115 small-print pages to literature alone. One finds a summary of the literature from many of the world's nations, a summary of plots from many great literary works, a dictionary of pseudonyms, a dictionary of mythology, book reviews and a list of suggested books for a family library, among other things.

George Eliot
Of particular interest to me is what the book's editors have to say about certain writers, and how their assessments jive with how those same writers are viewed today. About George Eliot, for example, the book says her Scenes from Clerical Life is "considered by some critics her masterpiece." Yet the Wikipedia article about this early book of stories by Eliot says it "has been interpreted mainly in relation to Eliot's later works." I don't recall ever even seeing a copy of Scenes from Clerical Life, while novels like Middlemarch, Adam Bede and Silas Marner are easy to find and still highly regarded.

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is called "the only truly literary classic which America produced before the nineteenth century." In the American literature classes I took in college, Franklin's book was the only thing we studied from before 1800, so perhaps this opinion still holds. As for the early 19th century, "the very names of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Poe mark this era as the most important in American literature." This was written early in the 20th century, but it is conceivable that that opinion remains valid.

The reference book lumps Herman Melville with Richard Henry Dana Jr. as "writers of our best books of adventure." I suppose Moby-Dick can be viewed as an adventure story, but it seems much more than that today. Mark Twain is barely mentioned, except as "probably the one American writer who enjoys a world-wide fame." There is no mention of anything he wrote. (There is much more about Twain in the Biography section.) Meanwhile the book mentions Edward Eggleston, George W. Cable, Mary Noailles Murfee and Harold Frederic, among other writers of the same era who are rarely read today and whose names few of us even recognize.



Monday, June 5, 2017

Grammar via literature

As I noted last time, the all-purpose reference book New Century Book of Facts, published early in the 20th century and reprinted for years thereafter, has both a section on language and one on grammar. The second reads like a continuation of the first. Skimming through this second chapter I found a few things worth a comment.

1. This section has much to say about literature, even though literature is the topic of yet another chapter in the book. That is because the authors argue literature is an effective way to teach good grammar. Learn from the best, in other words. Yet one can have good literature without good grammar, such as Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the stories of Ring Lardner. Sometimes, too, the grammar found in great literary works, especially very old ones, may not be the grammar educators want to teach. William Shakespeare was known to use double negatives, for example.

2. "No childish life is complete without a love of poetry," the authors say. Children may eventually come to dislike poetry, but when very young they love nursery rhymes and other simple poetry. We remember some of these poems for the rest of our lives. "Rhythm always charms the ear and makes the blood quicken in our veins," they write. We don't lose our love of rhythm and rhyme as we age, so why do most of us lose our love of poetry? To be sure, modern poetry is less about rhythm and rhyme than it once was, but that change in poetic style was only beginning at the time this book was first published. Whatever our age, most of us love the rhythm and rhyme of the poetry in songs. It's just the poetry on the printed page that loses its audience as that audience matures.

3. This book states, "Yet the race began literature on this earth with poetry, and good poems existed long before good prose, so far as our historical records and legends testify." So is this true? Did good poetry really come before good prose? Certainly there were epic poems long before the first novel, but what about other kinds of prose? Might not good stories have been told around fires before those same stories were put into verse?

4. This reference book lists nine things related to reading and writing that a child should learn before entering the upper grades in school. Some of these, like being able to answer questions simply and directly and being able to recognize common words seem obvious enough. But then there is No. 7: "To recognize good from bad literature." That seems a bit ambitious. How many of us long past school days are always capable of distinguishing good literature from bad? Isn't this something literary experts argue about?

5. Finally this chapter on grammar devotes six pages to diagraming sentences. Imagine that. A sentence diagram, it says, "is something like a bird's-eye view of a sentence." That strikes me as a good line, but do we really need a bird's-eye view of a sentence? I never understood the point of diagraming sentences when I was in school, and I still don't.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Old facts

Cleaning off an attic desk, the top of which I had not seen in years, I discovered an old book I had forgotten I owned. Called New Century Book of Facts, it was published first in 1900, then brought out in new editions every few years up until at least 1947, which is when my copy was published. It has 1,748 thin pages and represents an attempt to stuff as much information as possible into a single volume.

The contents are divided into 15 sections, from language (grammar is given its own chapter) to fine arts. Oddly, there is one section devoted to kindergarten, not the broader category of education as one might suppose, but just kindergarten.

In the 123 pages devoted to language, I found several things of interest. There is a long list of many of the world's languages, including a description of where each language is spoken, how many people speak it and what other languages it is related to.

Then comes four pages of Americanisms, or English words that originated on the western side of the Atlantic. Many of these are slang terms, such as carpetbagger and squatter. Some have Indian origins, such as succotash and wigwam. Many relate to the American West, such as butte and cowboy. As for the word squelch, the book says it originated in England, but is no longer used there.

There's another entry about various attempts to simplify spelling. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others, as a list of 180 spellings proposed in 1907 by the Columbia University board of trustees shows. Many of these spellings are now in common use, at least in the U.S. These include clue, defense, draft, era, humor, judgment and patronize. Less successful were fulfil, gipsy, instil, phenix and practise.

I was also interested in a section about the misuse of words. The editors pick at some things that don't seem to bother us as much today. For example, we are told not to say audience when we mean spectators. That's because "an audience listens; spectators see what occurs." Today the distinction between the two words seems to have more to do with the event itself. That is, a concert or play has an audience, while a sporting event has spectators. But, true, when a baseball game is broadcast over the radio, it would sound foolish to speak of spectators.

I may have more observations to make about the New Century Book of Facts next week.