Friday, November 13, 2009
Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare is written by Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the Oxford A-Z of English Usage. Butterfield writes in a scholarly, but natural style that is easy to read, and its clear that he knows the subject. The book is set up in a series of chapters that could probably stand alone as essays on the oddities of English, and how it evolves, contrary to those who would lock the language in a state of dormancy, if they could.
Butterfield bases his reasoning and his conclusions on research. He argues that usage guides and dictionaries can only guide writers and speakers of English, but never restrain them from using language as they see fit to express themselves. There are a numbers of processes by which the language evolves,
and it was fun to learn how words and phrases change meaning, and some words within phrases change. One of these processes is what Butterfield calls 'folk etymology'; the tendency to adopt a different word to replace a less well known one in an old phrase. There are lots of examples, many of which are great. A lot of them didn't work for me however, because, as Butterfield reminds us, British English and American English are often quite different, and that becomes especially clear when it comes to old saying and idioms. Damp squid is a good example. Although it means nothing to me, nor does its predecessor, damp squib, I imagine my British counterparts nodding with amusement to find their old 'squid' chestnut was all wrong.
The basis of Butterfield's research is something called a corpus; a massive database of language culled from all countries and writing resources throughout the English speaking world, which can be mined for information about the way we use English.
If you love language, etymology, or dictionaries, this is a fun read. Butterfield's tack reminds me of Richard Lederer. I've read a few of his books too, and they're lots of fun.