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.

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