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The Secret Lives of Words
by Paul West
ISBN 0156014092 / 9780156014090 / 0-15-601409-2
Publisher Mariner Books
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Paul West delights in the vicissitudes of language, and his enthusiasm is exquisitely catching. West particularly loves a good etymology (and who, deep down, doesn't?), and he's dedicated this newest of his 30-odd books to 500 of his favorite words and phrases, and the stories that go with them.
West tells a good tale, and he uses his gift to explain the derivation of words such as "Hottentot" and "humble pie," "patter," "conkers," and "nurdle." He starts with "abacus" and "ablative absolute" and works his magic alphabetically through his personal lexicon, ending with "zoot suit" and "zymurqist" (i.e., one who works with yeast, from the Greek zume for leaven and urqist for worker, as in metallurgist). Along the way, he provides definitions, usage, and derivations for "snite" (to blow one's nose without a tissue or handkerchief) and "scranny" (nuts, crazy, as in "driven scranny," from the Yorkshire dialect), as well as for more common words like "leotard" (named after James Léotard, the 19th-century French aerialist) and "decimate" (which means to kill one-tenth of, despite common misusage, and comes from the Roman practice of killing one of every 10 soldiers in times of mutiny). West's entry on "nun" explores the many food items containing that name--such as the Portuguese barriga de freira (nun's tummy) and the Neapolitan coscia de monaca (nun's thigh)--and his short essay on pumpernickel explains how (and why) the name derives from words meaning devil fart.
As fun a word book as has hit the market since Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, The Secret Lives of Words is selective instead of comprehensive, and therein lies some of its charm. It's informal. It's a taste. It's purely for the joy of the language. In his introduction, West reflects that "sadly, all words seem much the same to many people, like checkers, and they feel about them much as I do about Vivaldi's Four Seasons: all sound like Winter." Yet it's hard to imagine anyone skimming through the boondoggles and dead-cat bounces of The Secret Lives of Words and emerging without a joyous smile and a hunger for more. --Stephanie Gold [via]