What's in a Word? Wordplay Is All in a Day's Work for Vivian Cook. David Whetstone Talks to the Linguist about His New Book

Article excerpt

VIVIAN Cook is a man of many words. They are his bread and butter and also his liquid refreshment. Check YouTube for his witty, wine-orientated promotion for his latest book, It's All In A Word.

For word lovers - and there must be a word for them - the book is a fascinating, funny and, ironically, at times sobering wallow in the intricacies of the English language.

It is sobering because there are two chapters called How Many Words Do You Know? The first, testing for basic words, takes you up to the 20,000 mark. The advanced chapter sorts out those who can ascend to the dizzy summit of 150,000 by knowing the word to describe an African freshwater fish often found in aquariums, a baby that still lives primarily on milk and a million-millionth of a second.

Having prided myself - complacently, as it transpired - on a decent vocabulary, I foundered in the foothills.

This is a useful book and a fun book. It is also very revealing. Its 121 little chapters include an expos of 'BlairSpeak', showing how the former Prime Minister trod a linguistic minefield in the run-up to the Iraq war, and an introduction to a gorilla called Koko who mastered 246 words in American Sign Language.

Want to know some famous made-up words? Fancy a chapter called Fardling Gwiks? Intrigued by the question: Is the Sea Blue or Do I Just See It as Blue? Then this is the book for you It's Vivian Cook's second foray into relatively mainstream publishing.

Profile Books, which published Lynne Truss's mega-selling rant about poor punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, were heartened by sales of his jolly book about spelling, Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary - a title guaranteed to give computer spell-checkers a nervous breakdown - and is putting its weight behind this entertaining word-fest.

In his office at Newcastle University, where he is professor of applied linguistics, the author says the publishers have promised to promote the book heavily for six months.

He is a little nonplussed at this short-term approach.

He says his textbooks - volumes such as Chomsky's Universal Grammar: An Introduction, which sits on his desk - hang around for years, enjoying a periodic resurgence with each new student intake.

They have proved popular in China, where five of them are available in translation.

In fact, 70% of the students on his MA course in teaching English as a second or other language are from China and Taiwan, while 20% are from the Middle East and just 10% from elsewhere. "You seldom see a British student," he says. Second language acquisition. is Prof Cook's speciality. In fact, he founded the European Second Language Association. This, surely, must be a source of at least occasional frustration in a country where most people speak English at home and simply speak it a bit louder (and sometimes with an 'Allo 'Allo accent) when in Europe. He agrees that we are "less inclined to bother" with a second language and adds: "The current Government seem to have effectively undermined modern language teaching by making it non-compulsory after 14 or 15. "By doing that, at a stroke they remove large numbers of people who would have gone on. …