THE SUPERIOR PERSON'S BOOK OF WORDS by Peter Bowler Bloomsbury, 8.99 [pounds sterling], pp. 166, ISBN 0747553378
`From Aeaeae (magic) to Zzjoanw (a Maori drum), a dictionary for every lover of good words, neglected words and downright mad words,' it says on the blurb of Peter Bowler's book. There is no entry for aeaeae and I suppose Peter Bowler made up zzjoanw. Perhaps both facts are meant to be a joke. Goodness knows what other point the book has. Let us say it is a joke, a verbal version of Gamesmanship. Or one step beyond, perhaps, it is a satire of the kind of people who think they should increase their `wordpower' on the lines that Reader's Digest used to suggest; if so I don't think it works. The only blessing is that it does not contain the word serendipity, which often seems to be given to opinion pollsters as people's favourite word, as if there were few others to choose from.
Anyway if this book really were intended to introduce the reader, to unusual words and their smart use, what are perfectly ordinary words such as impeccable, ineffable, satrap and so on doing here? For more unusual words among the three of four hundred given here, such as steatopygous, the author unblushingly states that he does not give the pronunciations because the reader `should be prepared to submit to the intellectual discipline of finding out the pronunciations for himself'. By the time I came across an explanation that a constable is the lowest rank of the Australian police I really began to wonder. Then I discovered in the small print on the back of the title page it says that this book was first published in Australia, in 1979. That might mean that the aged Peter Bowler is now sitting with a tartan blanket over his bony knees hoping against hope that this book will bring comfort to his last years. Poor fellow.
Or perhaps Peter Bowler is laughing up his sleeve at the stupidity of book buyers. I saw in a shop today a book that lists the 10,000 words that are valid for use in Countdown, the daytime television programme. No definitions. Nothing. Just a list of 10,000 words. Only 6.99 [pounds sterling].
Bill Bryson entertains many people with his travel books, but he used to have a proper job as a sub-editor on the Times. Sub-editors are dull dogs, grey-faced for lack of sunlight, pedantic, ill-tempered, badly dressed and often flatulent through sitting awkwardly at their computer screens eating vile-smelling stew out of plastic containers bought from what passes as an office canteen. Mr Bryson has said goodbye to all that, but this book, first published in 1983, is a fossil from that abandoned stratum of his life. It is said to be fully revised and updated, indeed Mr Bryson puts the proportion of new matter at 60 per cent.
Perhaps we do need reminding that flaunt is different from flout, discreet from discrete, that decimate does not mean annihilate, or that Orkney is right and the Orkneys wrong. But do people really confuse jerry-built and jury-rigged? Is `raining cats and dogs' hackneyed just because Swift thought it so in 17387 Surely it is not so much a cliche as an ordinary term for `raining heavily', which is also a common phrase but not a hackneyed one.
Anyway, if you have not already got a copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage and its revised version edited by Robert Burchfield, save your 16.99 [pounds sterling], for Bryson's is not a fat, comprehensive book. It is not as quirky or original as Kingsley Amis's The King's English. And Keith Waterhouse wrote a similar book, considering in addition the craft of writing well, which takes more than distinguishing between flaunt and flout.
John Morrish writes a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph, a bit like Dot Wordsworth only not so annoying. More Frantic Semantics is the second collection of his columns. His interests are in fact chiefly etymological, although a jolly discussion of candy shows its modern semantic ramifications (nose candy, `cocaine'; eye-candy, `attractive woman'; mind-candy, `television'). On the etymology of candy he is slightly misleading, since he stops at Arabic, even though the Arabs borrowed it from Persian, an Indo-European language like our own. And he boldly describes anchovy as a Basque word on origin -- a controversial judgment. Still, of these three books, his is the one I'd prefer to find in my Christmas stocking.