5 books about words

By Yvonne Zipp
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 10:05 PM

Want to create an impromptu singalong? Just stand in a room of Gen X adults and let loose with "Conjunction Junction." I had a mom I'd never spoken with belting out, "What's your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses," baffling my son's young teacher. "Schoolhouse Rock" aside, though, grammar isn't the most cuddly subject. Grammarians have a reputation for being humorless sticklers in too-tight buns, slapping hands for breaking arcane rules that bear little relation to the way normal people talk. Take the "law" against ending a sentence with a preposition. It was declared null and void by no less an authority than Henry Watson Fowler in his "Dictionary of Modern English Usage" in 1926, but grammarians are still squabbling about it. These five books offer smart fun for anyone fascinated by the play of language.

1 In the Middle Ages, "grammar" and "glamour" were essentially the same word, writes Roy Peter Clark in his engaging, sometimes downright funny study of English, The Glamour of Grammar (Little, Brown, $19.99). The two have since taken such wildly divergent paths that his title seems "oxymoronic, as paradoxical as a sequined pocket protector." Clark, who's so enthusiastic about his subject that he makes a case for the semicolon as a "sex symbol," covers everything from spelling to neologisms, such as this year's Word of the Year, "refudiate." If there is any justice, "anecdotage" ("boring stories from old people" ) will soon be in wide circulation. Clark makes for the most genial grammarian since the singing conductor on "Schoolhouse Rock."

2English can seem about as complicated as "Goodnight Moon" next to Mandarin. Washington-based journalist Deborah Fallows spent three years living in China with her family trying to make herself understood. Her memoir, Dreaming in Chinese (Walker, $22), offers cultural insights through the lens of her language lessons. She covers big ideas like love and happiness, as well as the degree of difficulty involved in ordering Taco Bell takeout. There's a wonderful chapter on 20th-century linguist, philosopher and songwriter Chao Yuen Ren, who translated "Jabberwocky" into Chinese and once wrote a poem composed of 92 characters that are all pronounced the same. My only criticism: Fallows shouldn't be so reluctant to embrace her awesome Chinese name, "to borrow a pen."

3 Who invented the emoticon? That honor may belong to 19th-century satirist Ambrose Bierce, says Jonathon Keats in his new Virtual Words (Oxford Univ., $19.95). In these essays, Keats looks at some of the newest entries to the English language, such as "crowdsourcing" and "steampunk." He leads off with his heaviest stuff, reporting on how the element Copernicium got its name. But "Virtual Words" gets much more accessible to non-scientists as it goes on. Think linguistics has no practical application? Keats explains why PETA activists looking to create meat that doesn't have to die first should come up with an alternative to gross-sounding "in vitro meat."

4 The King James Bible turns 400 this year, and linguists claim it "has contributed far more to English . . . than any other literary source." In Begat (Oxford Univ., $24.95), David Crystal tries to pin down just how big that contribution really is. From sayings like "fly in the ointment," "fall flat on his face" and "bottomless pit" to words like "talented" and an episode of "Baywatch," its reach is impressive, but perhaps not as encompassing as Christians might think. Crystal's final tally: 257 modern English expressions. (The Bible's closest competitor, William Shakespeare, doesn't break 100.)

5 People utter about six metaphors a minute, writes James Geary. You can't listen to a weather or stock market report without tripping over them. In I Is an Other (Harper, $19.99), Geary traces the history of the literary device from Aristotle to Elvis, and covers such topics as synesthesia and Icelandic poetry. He looks at the neurobiology behind metaphors, and he interviews a woman diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, who looks wildly around for pachyderms when someone mentions "an elephant in the room." Whereas "The Glamour of Grammar" would snuggle cozily on any shelf next to Strunk and White's "Elements of Style," "I Is an Other" is more for the serious student.

bookworld@washpost.com Zipp reviews books regularly for the Christian Science Monitor.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company