A Year in Reading: Languagehat

December 10, 2006 | 3 min read

Languagehat is a deep repository of interesting linguistic tidbits. An essential blog for those with an interest in language, Languagehat is also engaging enough to make regulars out of a monolingual like me. “Hat” was nice enough to share some of his favorite books from this year:

coverJeff Prucher’s Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction isn’t even out yet, but as a copyeditor I’ve had the opportunity to read the whole thing, and it’s definitely one of my favorite books of the year. Yes, I got paid money to read it, but anyone who knows me at all knows that lexicography and science fiction are two of my favorite things, and to have them combined in a glorious package is a thrill that has nothing to do with a paycheck. If someone had told me forty years ago that the people who put out the OED would one day apply their scholarly talents to my favorite field, I would have been even more impatient for the future to arrive. It’s got etymologies, citations going back to the Renaissance and right up to 2006, fan terms going back to the purple-stained days of hectographs… Anyone who loves both words and sf will love this book. FIAWOL (= Fandom Is a Way of Life)!

coverGrant Barrett’s The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English is another amazing lexicographical performance that does something that would have been impossible until the advent of the Internet: applies the full panoply of scholarly resources to new or marginal words that do not appear in other dictionaries. Grant’s website Double-Tongued Word Wrester has been tracking such words since 2004, and he’s put the best of them into this book. One of my favorites is vuzvuz ‘a derogatory name for an Ashkenazic Jew… This term is usually used within the religion, especially by Sephardic Jews.’ A few entries in succession: AMW “a (pretty) woman whose career derives in some way from her appearance’ (from Actress, Model, Whatever); area boy ‘a hoodlum or street thug’ (a Nigerian term); armchair pilot ‘a person who talks about, studies, or directs airplane flying, but is not qualified to, or does not, handle the controls’ (a military term), and Asbo ‘a court order designed to curtail unwanted public behavior’ (UK, from “anti-social behaviour order”). I can splash around in it for hours.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about century-old Russian history, trying to understand the Revolution and how it happened, and Michael Melancon’s The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-war Movement was a surprisingly gripping read that is far more comprehensive than the title might indicate and explained things that better-known volumes pass over with hand-waving and generalities, in particular how exactly it was that all those workers and soldiers poured out into the streets in the last days of February 1917 and toppled the tsar. The SRs have been pretty much forgotten in the obsession over the Bolsheviks who wound up taking the tsar’s place, and if you’ve read enough to know who they are, you probably (like me) filed them away on a mental index card labeled “terrorism, peasants.” Turns out that’s a ridiculous oversimplification, and they were tremendously popular with the urban proletariat until the summer of 1917, when (like everyone else anywhere near the reins of power) they disappointed people who wanted peace and land sooner rather than later. Anyone interested in the period should read the book; Melancon’s working on one about the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, 1917-1921, which I’m looking forward to. (Incidentally, his name has a c-cedilla in French, and he pronounces it the French way, me-la(n)-SO(N).)

Thanks Languagehat!

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.