The joys of words:
In the Word?," by Charles Harrington Elster (Harcourt, 2005) is loaded with illuminating
word lore and immensely practical information for careful speakers and writers.
of Anguished English," by Richard Lederer (St. Martin’s, 2005) is a collection of yet
more accidental assaults upon our language.
If you want light entertainment with guaranteed chuckles
and belly laughs read Lederer, a self-styled linguistic stand-up comedian
who has written a stack of 30 books. If you want to take a more demanding tour of words read the more erudite Elster, a brilliant guide with an incisive sense of humor. Better yet, read both.
For years the two authors hosted "A Way With
Words" on National Public Radio. Their polar takes on linguistics– their yin and yang– made for lively--
often hilarious--discussions and a hugely popular show.
continues his trodden path of goofy twists of language and delights in the ribald and silly. Here are
Posted signs: "Marriage license
permits mounting." "We don’t tear your clothing with machines; we do it carefully by hand." News: "Officials
suspended over hotel fire." Warning labels: on a baby stroller... "Remove child before folding." On a steam iron...
"Do not iron clothes on body."
Ads in translation: "Finger-lickin’
good;" in Chinese: "Eat your fingers off." Political gaffes: "This is the worst disaster in California since I was
elected." Headlines: "Grandmother of eight makes hole in one." "Slain woman tied to Kansas man at trial." Upset
grammar: "Police look for witness to rape." Medical files: "Three bullets were removed from the patient–
one from each leg." "Patient is still under our car for physical therapy."
Church bulletin: "Ladies Bible
Study Thursday morning at 10, followed by lunch at the Fellowship Hall after the BS is done." Announcement typo:
" You will hear an excellent speaker and heave a healthy lunch." Misplaced modifiers: "I saw the dead dog driving
down the highway." "She gave brownies to children wrapped in Tupperware."
So you get the idea. Lederer has fun, and he spreads
it around. His latest book is "Trivia." (2008)
Charles Harrington Elster
is the wise guy of words-– "the grandiloquent gumshoe." His book is a colorful and choice read
for the word-wise, and he’s quick to answer the peskiest questions about our language. As the author of "Verbal Advantage"
and "The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations" (among others) he’s America’s authority on how to
A sample: Say Aesop like EE-sup;
say Anne Boleyn like BULL-in. And he has bodacious brainteasers (happily, with
answers in the back).
As you read his book you’ll be thinking "hey,
I didn’t know that!" The counterpart to the word feminist is hominist. Flammable and inflammable
are an odd set of synonyms. The companion to the word phallic is yonic. In a jiffy? A ‘jiffy’
is an actual unit of time (one one-hundredth of a second). Some group names: a leap of leopards, a knot
of toads, a pontificality of priests. Elster even tells you where to find your philtrum.
So absorb this stuff, exercise your vocabulary, and dare to be grandiloquent too.