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A Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare Hardcover – Nov 30 2008


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Review

"This book will be fascinating to those who would really like to find out how the English language is behaving. Clearly written and informative, it is a lively guide to that most creative and challenging language, English" --Alexander McCall Smith

"Nice choice of words" --Newsweek, 13 December 2008

"definitive guide to the evolution of English" --Scottish Daily Mail, 3 November 2008

"absorbing... lively...you will find something of interest on every page" --English Teaching Professional, 1 January 2009 --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Jeremy Butterfield is a freelance lexicographer who has contributed to many dictionary research programmes. He is the author of the Oxford A to Z of English Usage (2007).

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 8 reviews
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
This is a Fascinating and Entertaining Book Nov. 25 2008
By Paul Hendley - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a scientist, and as a long-term Brit living in the States, I feel doubly qualified to comment on this volume about English by a British expert in the field.

There's been some press coverage recently about how the book lists the clichés people hate most, such as "at the end of the day", "it's not rocket science", "24/7" etc. The book looks in some depth at usages people dislike, and some historical reasons for this antipathy. But it also covers much, much more than that: primarily, exactly how and why English continually evolves, and why that is neither good nor bad: it just happens.

To be honest, while I often use dictionaries, I'd never really thought about how they are created - though, of course, "The Professor and the Madman" had touched a chord in my imagination, as it did for so many other people. Having read Damp Squid, I understand that analysing language nowadays is scientific in a way it wasn't for the OED. Rather than laying down the law about how people SHOULD use language, dictionary writers analyse how people really ARE using language, based on huge amounts of data. This book explains exactly how they do this - thanks to the Web.

While it goes into some quite technical and fascinating detail, it does so with a lightness of touch which made me want to read on. It's an appealing mixture of scholarship and wit and I assume that's why it got the glowing endorsement from Alexander McCall Smith: "This book will be fascinating to those who would really like to find out how the English language is behaving." It will make a good stocking-filler since it's an ideal Holiday season read - both browsable and satisfying. Until I read it, I had no idea that "damp squid" was what it calls an "eggcorn" - an imaginative mistake. Copies will be under the tree for some of my American friends as well as the Brits.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Fun with Words June 3 2010
By Sam Sattler - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The English language, perhaps the most flexible languages there is, continues to evolve at a rapid pace. Some believe this evolution to be a horror, the destruction of a once proud language; others believe it to be a wonderful thing, the very reason that spoken English is now the dominant language in the world. Jeremy Butterfield's "Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare" is an entertaining look at the origins of modern English, the history of the dictionary, the sources of new words taken into the language, English grammar, and why so many English speakers are "wobbly" about spelling even some of the words they use every day (among other assorted topics).

"Damp Squid" is unlikely to convince every reader that the language's readiness to create, borrow and steal new words is a good thing, but it will entertain them with its evidence. Along the way, for instance, readers will learn that, depending on who is doing the counting and whether or not technical terms are included in the count, there are somewhere between one and two million words in the English language. Dictionaries leave out more words than they include - even the largest of dictionaries generally list only between 300,000 and 475,000 words. While the average university student is said to have a vocabulary of some 40,000 words, he likely uses less than half of those words "actively." In fact, 50 per cent of what we write consists of a mere 100 words and, astonishingly, the ten most used English words comprise some 25 percent of written words: the, is, to, and, of, a, in, that, have, I.

According to Butterfield, modern English is the offspring of five major linguistic influences, each of which, but for the last one, had a dominant period of influence on the language: Old English, French, Norse, Latin (and Greek), plus the other 350 languages of the world from which modern English picks and chooses words it finds useful. That explains many of our spelling issues.

Let's face it, though; it is reasonable to assume that a book on lexicography is going to be dry, at best, and, at worst, just plain boring. Jeremy Butterfield manages to avoid both those pitfalls by including sections that compare the idiomatic phrases of several languages, discuss the most hated words and phrases in the language, deride the Grammar Nazis of the past and present, and illustrate how the meaning of some common words is changing even now before our very eyes.

"Damp Squid" is a surprisingly entertaining take on a topic close to the hearts of most avid readers and writers, definitely worth a look.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
"A sort of human genome project for language." Feb. 10 2009
By E. Bukowsky - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In Jeremy Butterfield's "Damp Squid," we learn that lexicographers use "a collection of machine-readable texts known as a 'corpus'" to analyze "how words and phrases are used in authentic, natural contexts...." "Damp Squid" is a look at how the English language is evolving across the globe. Butterfield relies on the Oxford Corpus which contains over two billion words (some words appear more than once) and can be analyzed in a variety of ways, thanks to the marvels of modern computer technology.

The corpus tells us how frequently certain words appear in speech and writing, which new words have crept into English ("blog" and its offspring are worth noting), and which spelling variants have become most common. "Damp Squid" describes the English language not as it ought to be, but as it is. Which buzzwords are hot? What can we learn about words from the company they keep? What is the role of idioms, similes, and metaphors in modern English? How have the languages of other countries influenced ours? Most controversial, who decides what is correct in terms of grammar, usage, and syntax?

This book is geared for those who are interested in the history of the English language and in how computational linguists are using modern technology to keep track of its ever changing trajectory. Butterfield's use of technical language sometimes slows things down, but his playful humor spices up what could have been an extremely dull work. The author demonstrates through the use of entertaining examples that words have ever-changing personalities. Purists may turn their noses up at some of the author's findings, but "in the end, it is speakers, not dictionaries, who decide how language is used."
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Not all it's advertised to be April 7 2013
By Stan Edwards - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
While this is an interesting taken on the evolution of the English (not American!) language, it vacillates between trying to be a scholarly work and appealing to the masses. It is also very short only 169 small pages.
7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Interesting and amusing Sept. 14 2009
By Chiara Lama - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
A small little book I read on the same day it arrived from Amazon. Under the pretence of discussing the "good use" of English, the book is at the intersection of three interests of mine: the origin of words, the use of quantitative analysis to document reality and evolutionary theory as a general algorithm applicable outside biology.
The basis of Butterfield's work is a special dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary: "The aim of this Dictionary is to present in alphabetical series the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records [ca. AD740] down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology. It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang. [...] Hence we exclude all words that had become obsolete by 1150 [the end of the Old English era] ... Dialectal words and forms which occur since 1500 are not admitted, except when they continue the history of the word or sense once in general use, illustrate the history of a word, or have themselves a certain literary currency." [OED1, 1933]
The book is interesting and amusing: I recommend it.


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