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Inspirational Reads

Can I Get Another Word for 'Ho-Hum'?

March 26, 2009

Let's continue on with the "books I'm reading to make me a better author", shall we? Excellent. Today's installation is What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions about Language by Charles Harrington Elster.

In January, I reviewed The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. Read that one. Leave Elster's book on the shelf.

Oh, you probably want something to substantiate those instructions. If that's the way you're going to be, fine. I'll play along just the once.

Elster is a contributor to the "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine. As such, he gets lots of people writing in lots of questions about words, usage, and etymology. As such, this book is written in a question and answer format which makes for some nice natural breaks when reading this book on the shitter. Otherwise, it's just kind of annoying. Now, I will say that, when answering questions based on etymology, usage or "is there a word that..." describes a certain situation, Elster does a stand-up job. However, in several chapters, Elster decides to exercise his "wit" by crafting new words. Sure, creating new words is nice and all, but it was difficult reading these chapters and not imagining some smug motherfucker talking down to you while he creates a word to describe the holes in Swiss cheese or some other useless entity.

Added into these are sidebars where he makes up more stupid words, as well as "Bodacious Brainteasers" which are supposed to be quizzes but end up being impossible to decipher because he will randomly change the rules of the puns that he's using, oftentimes in the middle of the quiz itself. At the bottom of every couplet of pages is a pun in the vein of "I could have been a doctor, but I didn't have the patience". Get it? Laugh, clown, laugh!

I did, however, like the "Unfortunate Eponyms" piece that he wrote, telling stories about people whose lives or actions were so fucked up, we used their names to describe a similar situation. For instance, to "bowdlerize" is to go through and cut out all the "offensive" material from a written document. For instance, if I were to bowdlerize this blog, it'd look something like this:


In Elster's defense, some of his best work is in the pronunciation questions (he has a separate book just on mangled pronunciations). Herein he reminds everyone that, yes, there is a /t/ on the beginning of "tsunami," despite the media deciding it was pesky and dropping it back when they covered the one on Phuket Island. Also, he tells us that it's pronounced "homm-edge" and not "oh-mahj" like some self-important cocksnots have decided in recent years *cough*Alex Trebek*cough*. Also, he clears up that whole question of the plural of octopus: it's octopodes. See, the ending "pus" is a Greek derivative of foot, and as it's a Greek word, the proper pluralization is "podes", thus giving us "octopodes." See, the pluralized form of "octopi" is a Latin pluralization, so you're taking a Greek root and forcing a Latin rule on it, despite the fact that they're two different languages. It's kind of like the bastard who decided that we can't have split infinitives in English because they couldn't have split infinitives in Latin...despite the fact that it's impossible to have a split infinitive in Latin. Latin infinitives are all one word (you'll learn that in the upcoming weeks)! Should you think octopodes too silly, octopuses is also acceptable.

The other big reason for reading Bryson's book The Mother Tongue is that Elster cites it constantly (along with Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words), so you're just cutting out the middle man and going to a better written and more enjoyable source. However, if you feel like being talked down to by a book, by all means, read What in the Word?


Sass said...

I enjoy being talked down to by a book.

I enjoy being talked down to by blogs as well, which is why I read T.....

Never mind.

On that note, though, after it talks down to me, will it spank me and send me to bed without dinner?

Scope said...

Thanks for the good word on the bad book.

People who misuse plays on words should be severly PUNished.

If you saw that joke coming, and you groaned BEFORE you even got to the end, my job is done.

Soda and Candy said...

Ew, nobody should use the word bodacious.

I love puns. And Bill Bryson.

Also, please don't bowdlerize your blog.

That is all.

Chemgeek said...

what about Octopussy?

Anna Russell said...

I want to read that Bill Bryson book. A Short History is the only science book that's ever made me understand what was being talked about.

I told a friend recently I'd love to study etymology. He said "So would I, but I'm dyslexic, so I'd probably end up studying insects by accident".

red said...

This has nothing to do with this post, but if ND and SDSU make it to the finals of the NIT, there will be trash talk!

Sass said...

Hooker Blow-job = Ho-Hum

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

@ Sass: Wow. I think...yes...yes! My heart just melted a little bit.

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

@ Sass: Yes, well, he's an Internet Sensation and therefore has the right to Blog Down to Us. And I fight back by posting boring blogs.

@ Scope: I do appreciate a good pun. It's the bad ones up with I will not put.

@ Soda and Candy: Yes, I much prefer either "audacious" or "voluptuous", depending on how you mean it.

@ ChemGeek I believe the plural of that is "Sulemen".

@ Anna Russel: It is one of the best books I've read in a while...though Notes from a Small Island is even better (in my opinion).

And...your friend's pun...fantastic. I applaud him.

@ red: is ON!

BeckEye said...

"Octopus" doesn't really strike fear in the hearts of anyone. But, as a group, "octopodes" sound pretty damn creepy.

Soda and Candy said...

hey mjenks - you might like this blog about new words, although some of them are a bit wanky:

Chemgeek said...

Along these lines, I just learned that the phrase is "for all intents and purposes" and NOT "for all intensive porpoises."

Geez, no wonder I got so many weird looks all these years.

Dr Zibbs said...

I need to now reveal my identity. See that clown? That's me.

coolred38 said...

When Ive been talked down to by a book...I quietly sit in the corner and think about what Ive done...then promise myself to never do it again...then promptly forget as soon as new bodacious book comes along and tempts me off the path of self righteousness...damn I love when that happens.

words...words...words... said...

We are pleased to have you on Team Pro-Split Infinitive.

Sassy Britches said...


I think I would have difficulty commenting if your blog were bowdlerized. It would be like we were having a dialogue in some sort of British whodunnit movie.

Nej said...

Love Bill Bryson. Doesn't seem to matter what he's writing about, he always makes it interesting.

TishTash said...

You take that back about My Alex. I will fight you. In jello. You scared? Well you should be.

Girl Interrupted said...

They should make a new Blog rule that using pictures of clowns is prohibited

The rest of the post is fab

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

@ Beckeye: You're right. It does lend a far more sinister feel to the word, doesn't it? Almost like they're...evil cyborg octopodes.

@ Soda and Candy: I checked that out yesterday. That's a nice one. I'll be checking back in on it often. Thanks!!!

@ Chemgeek About a year after we were married, my wife suddenly realized that the lyrics to the song she was singing to the baby were really "Mares eat oats and does eat oats..." instead of "Mersy dotes and Dosie dotes..."

@ Zibbs: I knew it!

@ CoolRed38: Do you stick your thumb in your Christmas pie and declare what a good girl you are, too?

@ Words^3: Your welcome causes me to unabashedly smile.

@ SassyBritches: Well...if we're in a British whodunnit...should I wear some frilly lace collars? Not that I would enjoy that or anything. *shifty-eyed*

@ Nej: You're absolutely right. I mean, you have to admire someone who takes a subject as dreadfully boring as geology and makes it wryly funny.

@ TishTash: Yes. Terrified. Um...this wouldn't be naked wrestling, would it, because that would really terrify me.

@ Girl Interrupted: I have to say...I knew the "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" reference, but I didn't know that the clown in question was so fucking creepy. Egads. I do have a clown-centric post coming up. I think you'll like it more.

Fancy Schmancy said...

Is it acceptable to use the word Bodacious if my sister named her left breast that? The right one's name is Ta-Ta.