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Books: Evelyn Small Reviews Three Books on English Language and Usage

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By Evelyn Small
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Recently, a report appeared announcing that the English language has reached a million words. My reaction was twofold: Surely, there are more, because we've had all these centuries to come up with new ones; and, contradictorily, surely there are not nearly that many, since I can never seem to find the right one when I need it.

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For those logophiles in search of just the right word, here's a trio (a triad, a threesome, a triplet) of books to turn to when you want to add to your lexicographical store of knowledge (not to mention your bons mots).

In The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (Perigee; paperback, $13.95), Rod L. Evans sets out to help users better "understand words that are similar yet distinguishable in meaning." Also the author of "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge" about mnemonic devices that can help you remember a word once you know it, Evans starts here with a wonderfully appropriate Mark Twain epigraph: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." He proceeds to help unmuddle regularly confused words. Who knew the distinction between "frankfurter" and "hot dog"? Or "geek" and "nerd"? Or "cement" and "concrete"? If you're among those who are impelled (not compelled) toward correct usage, or someone for whom the choice of "can" or "may" matters a great deal, or a person who waited on tenterhooks while the Centers for Disease Control decided if the swine flu outbreak was an epidemic or a pandemic, then this is a perfect book to dip into.

The subtitle of The Whatchamacallit, by Danny Danziger and Mark McCrum (Hyperion, $22.99), says it all: "Those Everyday Objects You Just Can't Name (and Things You Think You Know About, but Don't)." What Danziger and McCrum have done is to put a name to ordinary items, with some history and annotation thrown in. Arranged alphabetically, from "Achenes" to "Zucchetto," the entries are lively and informative and offer satisfying alternatives to "thingamajig" and "doohickey," those generic words that often come in handy. After consulting "Whatchamacallit," you might be able to work the following words into your next conversation: "burpee," "caruncula," "dap" and "tittle." But I have a feeling that I'll still refer to those "squidgy, stringy bits that run between the skin and the edible portion of a banana" as just that, rather than use the more accurate term "phloem bundles."

Patricia T. O'Conner, of "Woe Is I" and other popular language books fame, here partners with her husband, Stewart Kellerman, on Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language (Random House, $22). It's the most substantial of these three books (with 40 pages of endnotes). The voice they maintain throughout is accessible, conversational and commonsensical, yet full of witty and clever turns of phrase and historical insight.

Wordplay abounds on every page, beginning with the table of contents, where chapter titles such as "Grammar Moses: Forget These Commandments" and "In High Dungeon: And Other Moat Points" propel readers on. (O'Conner gives me permission to end that sentence with a preposition.) Grammatical rule-breaking is a no-no in many people's books, but the authors here happily take on the "linguaholics" who rigidly follow bogus restrictions.

O'Conner and Kellerman clearly are having fun as they deal with dirty words (in a chapter on "Lex Education"), word origins (who knew that a familiar vehicle may owe its name to a cartoon dog named Eugene the Jeep?) and gender issues in language -- in short, all manner and matter of grammar, etymology and usage. Whether to breezily split infinitives is treated in a great section on the "splitting headache." "Origins of the Specious" is also succinct in its good guidance on one phrase that raises hackles among grammarphiles: "If my email is any indication, half the English-speaking world lies awake nights, grinding its teeth because the other half says 'I could care less' when it means 'I couldn't care less.' If your enamel is starting to wear down, my advice is to care less."

For those who finish this book and still want more, go to O'Conner's Web site, www.grammarphobia.com, to test how "myth informed" you are when it comes to words.

Small is a former contributing editor of Book World.


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