One week till Chanukah; 10 days till Christmas. Here's your almost-last-minute shopping list for lovers of language:
Everything You Know About English Is Wrong, by Bill Brohaugh, who writes a blog with the same title. You've got to love a usage manual whose subtitle is "Why English ain't from England, and 'ain't' ain't a bad word." Brohaugh, a former editor of Writer's Digest magazine, casts a skeptical and gleeful eye on bugbears like hopefully, decimate, and the verbified impact. But really, this is the sort of book you can open at random and be enlightened and entertained. I'm particularly fond of the section Brohaugh calls "Notymology, and Other Tales from the Bullshitternet."
Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, by Elizabeth Little. Who wouldn't enjoy unwrapping a gift with such an intriguing title? Happily, the inside of the book lives up to the cover. "Languages are, without question, the great compulsion of my life," Little writes. She's turned that compulsion into "a collection of the quirks, innovations, and implausibilities of the world's languages"—for example, the fact that some inhabitants of New Guinea get by with just two color terms, "black" and "white." (The book's title, by the way, is the Chinese mistranslation of "Coca-Cola.") Charming illustrations by Ayumi Piland.
Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, by Rob Walker, who writes a blog called Murketing and the "Consumed" column for the New York Times Magazine. Not strictly about words or usage, it's nonetheless an essential (and well written) reference for anyone who works in marketing, advertising, or social media. Ever wondered how and why Timberland, a traditional New England shoe company, became the first choice of hip-hop artists and other "urban" (read: African-American) consumers? Or how a new energy drink, Red Bull, and an old Midwestern beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon, became surprise recent successes? Or how branding agencies have harnessed and monetized word-of-mouth? Read this book, or give it to someone who needs to know the answers.
Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme, by Calvin Trillin. Disclaimer: I haven't yet read it, but I did laugh my head off (there it goes, rolling down the aisle) over Trillin's previous collection of presidential doggerel, Obliviously On He Sails, and last week I listened to a radio interview with Trillin in which he read several of the new verses, so I feel qualified to recommend the book. Writing short, humorous verse is much harder than it appears and a bit of a dying art. Learn from a master.
Need more suggestions? Mighty Red Pen recommends a new board game, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: The Game for People Who Like to Read, which tests players' knowledge of the first lines of literary works. Former Boston Globe editor Jan Freeman picks
the best some worthy language books of 2008 here (her blog) and here (her column). And Editrix alerted me to Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, originally published in 1983 and updated in 2004. Bryson is not universally admired by Real Linguists, but I buy his books anyway (and keep a couple of cross-references on hand to check his facts). Bryson's memoir of growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is one of the funniest books I've ever read—or listened to. Bryson himself reads the audiobook in the perfect deadpan; it kept me laughing during 12 hours behind the wheel from Oakland to L.A. and back again.