Bryson's Dictionary of
Troublesome Words

A Writer's Guide to
Getting it Right

Bill Bryson
(Broadway Books)
The great curmudgeons on the use and abuse of the English language were Samuel Johnson, H. W. Fowler, and H. L. Mencken. They were brilliant stylists, persnickety to the point of parody, and deeply in love with one of the most complex, hag-infested languages of the 55 or so major tongues on the face of the earth.

Melvyn Bragg artfully showed us in his recent The Adventure of English that our language suffers from the same lack of class as a dug-heavy and mangy street bitch. During its early history, English had to go underground, into the world of country bumpkins, studs, whores, actors, pimps, ministers and other low-lifes. Only by hiding with the ruffians was it possible for the language to survive the French invasion of 1066.

Thus, the language was forced to create a plethora of low-class great-great-grandfathers, great-grandmothers, grandfathers, grandmothers and disreputable cousins: Anglo-Saxon, Low German, Low Latin --- all to help hide from three hundred years of pretentious French.

In the process, English became a magpie, needing (for no good reason except possibly avarice) to steal nouns, adjectives, verb forms and constructs from every language on earth, including Nilo-Saharan, Sino-Tibetan, Dravidian, Oto-Manguean, and Tupian, not to say the original Indo-European.

Now, seven centuries later, we find ourselves stuck with that hotch-potch, along with the constant fiddling of scholarly monks and university drones trying to make this bastard language more "standard," more "respectable."

It is no wonder that the King's English is filled with enough pronunciation and structural bug-a-boos to drive a simple student bonkers, especially some poor drone only wanting to get ahead by learning the international language of commerce, not suspecting when he begins that he will run the gauntlet of a glorious minefield of tricks, booby-traps, lingual explosives --- a composite lingual madness.

Try to explain to some poor chump from Singapore or Algiers who's trying to study the practice of English mercantilism ... try to summarize for him the difference between would, should, and could; or why through is pronounced "throo," rough is "ruff," and ought is "awt."

Or why even those who grew up in the language still agonize over whether to say "It is I" or "It is me;" or why some, trying to sound cultured, will whisper "between you and I."

Or, even, bless us all, why it's nerve-racking and not nerve-wracking, why nincompoop and not nimcompoop, numskull not numbskull; why it's spelled perceptible and not perceptable, why extraneous not exteraneous, why extrovert not extravert, why irregardless is not even a word, why hopefully is a stinker, why the ^ is called caret not carat, and the ever-befuddling difference between lay and lie (You don't "go upstairs and lay down." You "go upstairs and lie down.")

Oh, it's a jungle in there, in this capacious, crapulous, crafty, cranny-filled enigma we call English.

§     §     §

We've been a long-time fan of the most recent Language Curmudgeon, Bill Bryson, since he brought out the feisty and funny Mother Tongue in 1990. With his newest, he is on the warpath again: spelling, usage, the horrors of those who are careless with his language. And Bryson is not citing the checkout stand rags or the penny dreadfuls. His targets include the snooty, supposedly oh-so-careful New Yorker, the New York Times, the Economist, the Los Angeles Times, the Times of London, and the Independent.

This is a direct quote from the latter: "In an attempt to diffuse panic over the disease, he spelled out the ways in which it was spread." Bryson's commentary:

    Defuse, diffuse: Occasionally confused. The he here refers to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is hardly likely to wish to scatter panic, however thinly.

§     §     §

Bryson is not a bit afraid to give his reader a bit of discomfort on, for instance, the use of shall vs. will:

    Authorities have been trying to pin down the vagaries and nuances of shall and will since the seventeenth century. In The King's English, the Fowler brothers devote twenty pages to the matter. The gist of what they have to say is that either you understand the distinctions instinctively or you do not; that if you don't, you probably never will; and that if you do, you don't need to be told anyway.

Bryson concludes, "The rule most frequently propounded is that to express simple futurity you should use shall; in the first person and will in the second and third persons, and to express determination (or volition) you should do the reverse."

    But by that rule Churchill blundered grammatically when he vowed, "We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender " As did MacArthur when he said at Corregidor, "I shall return." As have all those who have ever sung "We Shall Overcome."

Over the past few days, we have found ourselves dipping in, here or there, into The Dictionary of Troublesome Words, unwilling to lay it aside. His offerings are fun rather than frumpy. His ideas are in no way hidebound. Bryson is in love with etymology and even the shades of Lewis Carroll ("Dormouse for the small rodent, which isn't actually a mouse at all. The name is thought to be a corruption of the Norman French dormeus, meaning sleepy. The plural is dormice.)

This one stays at my side when I am trying to spice up a review, especially when I am dealing with the nincompoops and numskulls who continue to publish books filled with "tautology, redundancy, pleonasm" --- all three of which, Bryson tells us, "mean using more words than necessary to convey an idea."

--- Lolita Lark
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