Magazine article The Spectator

Antics and Semantics

Magazine article The Spectator

Antics and Semantics

Article excerpt

THE SUPERIOR PERSON'S BOOK OF WORDS by Peter Bowler Bloomsbury, L8.99, pp. 166, ISBN 0747553378 TROUBLESOME WORDS by Bill Bryson Viking, L16.99, pp. 242, ISBN 0670899224 MORE FRANTIC SEMANTICS by John Morrish Macmillan, L9.99, pp. 154, ISBN 0333903919

'From Aeaeae (magic) to Zzjoanw (1 Maori drum), a dictionary for every lover of good words, neglected words and downright mad words,' it says on the blurb of Peter Bowler's book. There is no entry for aeaeae and I suppose Peter Bowler made up zzjoanw. Perhaps both facts are meant to be a joke. Goodness knows what other point the book has. Let us say it is a joke, a verbal version of Gamesmanship. Or one step beyond, perhaps, it is a satire of the kind of people who think they should increase their 'wordpower' on the lines that Reader's Digest used to suggest; if so I don't think it works. The only blessing is that it does not contain the word serendipity, which often seems to be given to opinion pollsters as people's favourite word, as if there were few others to choose from.

Anyway if this book really were intended to introduce the reader to unusual words and their smart use, what are perfectly ordinary words such as impeccable, ineffable, satrap and so on doing here? For more unusual words among the three of four hundred given here, such as steatopygous, the author unblushingly states that he does not give the pronunciations because the reader `should be prepared to submit to the intellectual discipline of finding out the pronunciations for himself

By the time I came across an explanation that a constable is the lowest rank of the Australian police I really began to wonder. Then I discovered in the small print on the back of the title page it says that this book was first published in Australia, in 1979. That might mean that the aged Peter Bowler is now sitting with a tartan blanket over his bony knees hoping against hope that this book will bring comfort to his last years. Poor fellow.

Or perhaps Peter Bowler is laughing up his sleeve at the stupidity of book buyers. I saw in a shop today a book that lists the 10,000 words that are valid for use in Countdown, the daytime television programme. No definitions. Nothing. Just a list of 10,000 words. Only L6. …

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