A Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare Hardcover – Nov 30 2008
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"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).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
"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.
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."
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