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Two new books on words--one right on the money and one ... well ... nor worth the money. (Editing).

I cannot remember what I expected when I bought Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting It Right, by Bill Bryson. I'd known him from his humorous but also insightful and informative books like A Walk in the Woods, I'm a Stranger Here Myself and In a Sunburned Country. We even got a couple of laughs out of each other in an exchange of letters. Maybe I was looking for a funny guide to funny words--or what Bryson calls "troublesome words."

Not so. Bryson takes the English language very seriously--no surprise for an accomplished writer and, as I learned in the introduction to this book, a former copy editor for the London Times.

In fact, it was while he was at the Times in the early 1980s that he suggested to a Penguin Books editor "that there was a need for a simple, concise guide to the more confusing or problematic aspects of the language and that I was prepared to undertake it. To my astonishment and gratification, Mr. McFarlan sent me a contract and, by way of advance, a sum of money carefully gauged not to cause embarrassment or feelings of overworth."

Current volume's predecessor

The result was The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words, 1983. Without having seen the Penguin version, I imagine the title change to the 2002 Bryson's Dictionary reflects a more personal, and wry, handling of the subject. Plus, as Bryson writes in the introduction:

Some 60 percent of the material is new since the original Dictionary of Troublesome Words. This is not, alas, because I am now 60 percent better informed that I was nearly twenty years ago. In fact, very nearly the reverse. I can't begin to tell you (or at least I prefer not to tell you) how many times while reviewing the original text I found myself thinking, "I didn't know that. Why, I've been making that mistake for years." The revisions herein consist largely of elaborations on much that I had forgotten I once knew, and additions concerning matters that have come to my attention since. In an alarmingly real sense, the alternative title now could be Even More Things in English Usage That the Author Wasn't Entirely Clear About Until Quite Recently.

The usual suspects

Like the major usage guides--such as The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage, Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, and the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage--Bryson rounds up the usual suspects:

* Couples like career-careen, infer-imply, founder-flounder, less-fewer, flout-flaunt, and its-it's;

* Trios like elicit-extra ctextort, germane-relevant-material, and healthy-healthful-salutary;

* Quartets like contrary-converse-opposite-reverse, prone-prostrate-recumbent-supine, and opthalmologist-oculist-optician-optometrist;

* And those singularly troublesome miscreants like hopefully, protagonist, and which.

But unlike those major usage guides, Bryson's goes beyond dry dictionary-like entries to provide an entertaining narrative. The author's "voice" is ever present with anecdotes, word histories, gentle suggestions, and only rarely with overt proscriptions and never with the imperiousness of some of our contemporary language pundits.

(I heartily agree with one such mild proscription, and wish other editors and directory publishers would, too: "bimonthly, biweekly and similar designations are almost always ambiguous. It is far better to say 'every two months,' 'twice a month,' etc., as appropriate.")

A good example of Bryson's unique approach is his lengthy treatment of the word hopefully. He dismisses the usual objection "that it is a misused modal auxiliary--that is to say, that it fails to modify the elements it should.

The shortcoming of this argument is that those writers who scrupulously avoid hopefully in such constructions do not hesitate to use at least a dozen other words--apparently, presumably, happily sadly, mercifully, thankfully, and so on--in precisely the same way.

Bryson then concludes:

There are, however, two other grounds for regarding the unattached hopefully with suspicion. The first is that, as in the Stevenson quotation at the beginning of this entry ["To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive"], it introduces a possiblity of ambiguity Gowers cites this sentence in reference to a cricket match: "Our team will start their innings hopefully immediately after tea." It isn't possible to say whether hopefully refers to the team's frame of mind or to the time it will start batting.

A second objection is to the lameness of the word. If a newspaper editorial says, "Hopefully the actors' strike will end today," who exactly is doing the hoping? The writer? The actors? All right-minded people? Too often the word is used as no more than an easy escape from taking responsibility for a sentiment and as such is better avoided.

Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words also features an 11-page appendix on punctuation, a three-page bibliography and suggested readings, and a six-page glossary of grammatical terms.

All of which adds up to a comprehensive and extremely helpful guide to English usage--and a highly recommended complement to the standard guides.

Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, 241 pp., hardcover, Broadway Books, New York, www.broadwaybooks.com

Oxford's "Word Histories"

Also published this year is The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories: The Life Stories of Over 12,000 Words, edited by Glynnis Chantrell.

It's billed as a "fascinating journey through the life stories of over 12,000 words." In the preface, editor Chantrell says these stories

involve relationships: shared roots (e.g. stare and starve both from a base meaning "be rigid); common ancestry (mongrel related to mingle and among); surprising commonality (wage and wed); typical formation (blab, bleat, chatter, gibber imitative of sounds); influence by association (cloudscape on the pattern of landscape); and shared wordbuilding elements (hyperspace, hypersonic, hyperlink). Colourful popular beliefs are explored about words such as posh and snob; idioms reveal how and when they came about (happy as a sand boy, say it with flowers). So much of what we say reveals our social history: discover the connection in a Roman's mind of salary and salt, and how the notion of public school has changed since first instituted. Each word reveals the richness of its past and communicates afresh.

All very well and good, but I personally found the entries to be pretty obvious and unenlightening--less than what one can find in an ordinary dictionary.

Here's an example: "infantry [late 16th century] The word infantry is from French infanterie, from Italian infanteria, from infante 'youth, infantryman', from Latin infant- 'not speaking'."

Compare that with the same entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: "infantry ... The branch of an army made up of units trained to fight on foot. [French infan-terie, from Italian infanteria from infante, youth, foot soldier, from Latin infans, infant]"

The difference may be subtle, but I think the dictionary definition more clearly makes the connection between the soldiers and their young age--compellingly reminding one of what General Eisenhower supposedly said while planning the D-Day invasion of Normandy--that he wanted only young men who had never seen combat, men young enough that they still felt they would never die.

In other words, why buy a book that purports to tell "the life stories of over 12,000 words" when the usual writer's or editor's dictionary already has better "stories" of hundreds of thousands of words?

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, edited by Glynnis Chantrell, 560 pp., softcover. Oxford University Press, Oxford. New York
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Author:Swift, Paul
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:Nov 30, 2002
Words:1214
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