Australian readers may recognise the title, if not its author, Kate Burridge, since the book was first published in Australia two years ago. In her words, it has been pruned of many of its Australianisms and has now been released into the Northern Hemisphere by Cambridge University Press.
It’s a set of essays on language that were first heard on, or provoked by callers to, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Soundbank programme. In her day job, she’s Chair of Linguistics at Melbourne’s Monash University.
She has written a series of very readable standalone chapters on various themes associated with her subtitle, “Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English language”. These include the way that pronunciations change, the reasons why some words vanish from the language while others are continually being invented, and whether any word has a real intrinsic meaning that’s distinct from the way people might misuse it.
She points out that at one time somebody who was daft was humble rather than foolish or insane, an apple could be any fruit and a slut was merely untidy. Such changes often leave telltale remnants behind in fossilised survivals — cobweb contains the old word coppe for a spider, noisome contains noy from annoy, and midriff has within it an old word for the belly, hriff. She also talks about the sources of some of our vocabulary, about supposedly poor or incorrect usage (very often a view imposed by pedants and verbal hygienists with a linguistic axe to grind), and about slang, taboo language and euphemisms.
Chapters contain asides describing such specifics as the curious origin of the pronoun she, why such words as pants and trousers are plural, the curiosities of rhyming slang, the mystery of the disappearing l in words like calm and walk, and why some words, such as deer and sheep, are the same in singular and plural.
It’s a fair bet that anyone who finds this newsletter interesting will also like Professor Burridge’s book and will look forward to the sequel, Weeds in the Garden of Words. This has just been published by ABC Books, but is likely for the moment to be available only in Australia and New Zealand.
[Kate Burridge, Blooming English, published by Cambridge University Press; paperback, pp242, including index; ISBN 0-521-54832-2; publisher’s price in the UK £13.95.]