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Rich and strange: is there any language more fun to play with than English?

Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words

Howard Richler

Ronsdale Press

161 pages, softcover

ISBN 9781553801009


ENGLISH REALLY IS A PERFECTLY CANADIAN LANguage, an Anglo-Saxon base sea-changed by time and multicultural forces into something rich and strange. Howard Richler documents this fact amply in his new book Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words. He looks at the often anfractuous paths a bevy of words have taken to their present English senses--and many of them, just like many Canadians past and present, started their journeys somewhere else altogether.

Even more fitting for Canada, that "somewhere" was very often French. As Richler says, "truth be known, there are more English words that derive from French than from the original Anglo-Saxon word stock." Writing from the heart of two-solitudes-land, Richler concludes, "It is time to admit that our beloved mother tongue is essentially poorly pronounced French."

As witness the title of his book. How can French be strange to us when strange has come from French to us? It has hardly changed--modern French etrange reflects Old French estrange, which gave us this word and (of course) is related to estrange as well. But that is, in a way, extraneous. And not just because estrange comes from Latin extraneus, but because strange, strangely enough, is not one of the 239 words that Richler expostulates on in his book. Well, that's okay, I suppose; all the words he does trace the history of are familiar ... although their origins may not be.


Not all our words have been swiped from elsewhere, true. The other half of Richler's title manifests that fact: bed and fellow both come from Old English (without major changes in meaning), which got them from its Old Teutonic roots, and they can be traced in a long lineage as far back as the tracing will go. Such a pedigree would set them in highest esteem in some languages, but in English we tend to deprecate the Anglo-Saxon words and elevate the Latin- and Greek-derived ones.

Not that we always know the sources of our words. As Richler demonstrates, there are quite a few words with surprising origins. "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows," as Shakespeare wrote, but linguistic thievery and change do too. In Strange Bedfellows, Richler has planted a verbal flower bed of strange blossoms in sets of ten (with two exceptions, one of 24 and one of 55), arranged thematically by origins. The first chapter, for instance, is "Ten Words You Never Knew Came from Unmentionable Body Parts"; others focus on such topics as animals, food, religion, the military, farts, mythology, vices and languages such as French and Arabic. He caps off with a miscellany of "Fifty-Five Words Whose Pedigree Will Delight and Amuse You." The point is made clearly: English words have often arrived by long, strange journeys, some domestic, many international.

It has also long been said that politics makes strange bedfellows, however, and Richler occasionally demonstrates that point, too, by tossing in political observations that in some cases guarantee that the book will seem dated very quickly (on cabal: "if Barack Obama continues in his present direction it is likely that he too will soon be another cabal victim") and in others make for non sequiturs (in covering hypocrite, which in the original Greek referred to an actor, he asks whether, given that California has elected two actors as governors, California voters prefer hypocrites, and then declares, "Perhaps not, since Schwarzenegger, unlike Reagan, is bringing in quite progressive legislation to slow down climate change"--as though laudable were the opposite of hypocritical).

Richler also makes a few conjectural statements that reach a bit far. For instance, noting that travail meaning "work" came originally from trepalium, which named an instrument of torture, he does not follow the available trail of evidence from torture through hardship to toil and thence to work, but simply says, "fear of the trepalium must have served as an incentive to work harder, because the French took this word and Frenchified it as travail'.' Now, Richler may have been exercising dry wit there, but if so, he should have been more overt about it; as he knows, jokes about etymology can be taken as the truth--he himself puts paid to silly folk etymologies for "golf," "OK," "loo" and a very popular vulgarity.


There are so many popular false beliefs about words and their origins, we need keepers of the truth--high guardians of the language, as it were. And we have them. In fact, there are quite a few books on the shelves about the origins of English words, making popular literature out of information available in any good dictionary, and among the authors of these books are several great high guardians of the language: Michael Quinion, of the website World Wide Words; Barbara Wallraff, long-serving in The Atlantic; Katherine Barber, "Canada's Word Lady" and author of, among others, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs (which Strange Bedfellows is quite evidently patterned on); and, yes, Howard Richler, long-time language columnist for the Montreal Gazette and author of such other books as The Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Can I Have a Word with You? and A Bawdy Language: How a Second-Rate Language Slept Its Way to the Top. And now he adds yet another tome to a busy little genre.

It is fitting that Howard Richler should be a high guardian, since the name Howard likely comes from ha, "high," and ward, "guardian." (Saw that coming? Of course you did.) And, as one expects from a first-rate language writer, his work can be very engaging; Can I Have a Word with You? gives lengthy, in-depth discussions of words, looking at them from several angles, not just historical but also cultural, and even playing with them. Strange Bedfellows sacrifices some of that depth in order to pack in more quantity. The average entry is but half a page long. The result, although accessible, is not quite as fun or valuable as the more thorough treatments Richler has shown he can give. And in places it feels trimmed to the point of jumpiness.


But Richler is a good author, and a good Canadian too. How can a person named Richler not be quintessentially Canadian? Think Noah; think Daniel. Think Mordecai! As it happens, Howard Richler is the second cousin of Mordecai Richler. So why shouldn't the second cousin of the man who wrote some of the essential works of Canadian fiction be the man to write the book about Canadian English?

But in fact he has not written the book about Canadian English. Oh, English, in all its cultural promiscuity, does seem exquisitely Canadian, but neither Strange Bedfellows nor any of Richler's other books is focused specifically on Canadian English and its peculiarities. Rather, the seminal book on Canadian English from the humorous angle is Mark M. Orkin's Canajan, Eh?, while those who want a detailed rundown of Canadianisms can turn to Katherine Barber's Only in Canada, You Say: A Treasury of Canadian Language. Strange Bedfellows is most Canadian in its not being pointedly Canadian.

But Richler does enrich the reader. As well he should: family names can be a bit of trouble to etymologize, but Richler may come from Reichler, which may be related to German Reich, meaning "empire," or reich, meaning "rich." There we have it: the British Empire helped the expansion of the English word stock, after all, and this has given it many strange riches, as Richler shows us.

James Harbeck is an editor and linguist and the author of the blog Sesquiotica <sesquiotic.>. Watch that space for details on his book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar, and the eventual Adventures in Word Tasting.
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Title Annotation:Howard Richler's "Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words"
Author:Harbeck, James
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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