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Words, Words, Words. By David Crystal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), vii + 216 pp. £12.99 hardback.

 

David Crystal is an academic authority on the English language. This book, however, is rigorously non-academic. It is a conveniently priced, attractively presented gift book, designed to foster enthusiasm for lexicography, here called "wordsmithery". Written in plain and often-humorous prose, the book amply fulfils its remit. Academics and non-academics alike will discover or extend fascination with the words of the English language.
The book offers succinct information on when and how children develop language, on the origins of English, on how words are born, grow and die, and on the complexities of defining what a word is in the first place. There is better value, however, in the countless asides, questions and observations. For example: Why are certain words thought to be more beautiful than others? Why does the name "Darth Vader" befit a baddie and not a goodie. How should we define a word like "debagonization" (coined by Crystal to describe the agony subsiding when your bags appear on the carousel at the airport)? Why did room 404 at Cern in Switzerland become the origin of the word "404 Error"? Why did the word "bling bling", part of rap culture in the 1990s, die when it was adopted by the middle classes? How is it that the word "computer", resisted by the French ("ordinateur") in the name of national identity, actually came into English from French? Why does the word "nice" have its origins in the Latin nescire, "to be ignorant"? And much more, including some very moving fragments of SMS poetry (contra those who lament the demise of spelling rules):

Jus left th clinic
Bstrong cheri
Arm ok no panic
Need u 2 promis me
2 keep kissin
me left breast
cos baby next week
me right'll b missin
(Peter Wroe)

New technologies will not destroy this language. Its openness and creativity will remain strong, at least for as long as its speakers are prepared to engage with the language as something more than a means to an end. Crystal's serious purpose is no doubt to encourage this to happen. Readers are constantly invited to extend the book into their own lives and language, in the name of invention rather than constraint. Notes are given on how to test the size of your vocabulary, how you can become a "word detective", how you can keep a record of your baby's first words, and where further information can be found on the various aspects of lexicology.
There is certain nobility in that aim. At the same time, the English language may be accused of unchecked imperialism, of killing countless minor languages, of bearing within it the scars of domestic colonizations, and of perpetuating violent class-based iniquities. Such views are somehow absent from this book. There is a certain complacency as the English professor marvels at the language, inviting his English readers get down to play parlor games with the language that was once theirs, like so much annotated scrabble. As they play, Professor Crystal's multiple cries of "amazing!", "fascinating!" are no doubt justified, and his enthusiasm deserves to be reproduced. The English have to do something on all those cold, rainy afternoons.


 

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