A Year in Reading: Three bests from Language Hat

November 28, 2005 | 3 books mentioned 2 min read

Last year I asked a bunch of people, “what was the best book you read all year?” And throughout the month of December I posted the responses. Well, I’m doing it again this year and it looks to be even bigger and better. This time around, we’ll be hearing from authors, bloggers and readers. Our first batch of books comes from the impeccable language blog Language Hat, an essential read if you have an interest in languages, linguistics and words, or even if you think you have an interest in those things. Given his expertise, I asked that he include reference books in his picks.

coverThe New Oxford American Dictionary is a delight to look at and to use. I especially appreciate the “core sense” system, which means that the first definitions given “represent typical, central uses of the word in question in modern standard English,” far more useful than Merriam-Webster’s historical ordering (which often leaves the unwary user thinking some obsolete sense is the basic meaning). It’s an encyclopedic dictionary, meaning proper nouns are included along with all the other words; as they say, “names such as Shakespeare and Mississippi are as much part of the language as words such as drama or river.” It tries to “break down the barriers to understanding specialist vocabulary,” providing comprehensible explanations as the main definition and including technical information as subentries. And of course it draws on the extensive Oxford data collections. More at Language Hat.

coverGuy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language has its problems (mainly stemming from an ill-advised attempt to cram a technical hypothesis about the origins of the Semitic verbal system into a book for the general reader), but it’s written with style and humor, and it was a real pleasure to read a book on historical linguistics by somebody who knows what he’s talking about. If enough people read this book, I won’t have to work so hard to introduce the basic facts of language change. More at Language Hat.

coverMaria Benet’s Mapmaker of Absences mixes formal pleasure with lived emotion and exact perception; I’ve found myself returning to it often during some difficult times this past year. I prefer poetry that lets tradition inform the emotions and needs of the present, and I’m glad I can still find books that give me that pleasure. More at Language Hat.

is a retired freelance editor in Hadley, Mass.; he is coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, a collection of international curses and insults, and sole proprietor of the blog languagehat.com.