BY HOOK OR BY CROOK
It’s impossible to give you a brief description of this book. It has the subtitle A Journey In Search of English and David Crystal spends the book driving more or less purposefully around bits of the UK, with mental excursions to India, California and Europe. You might describe it as a travelogue coupled with literary and linguistic reflections. There are many references to local history and the origins of place names as well as substantial sections on the language of Shakespeare, the linguistic melting-pot of India, and the evolution of Euro-English.
If it resembles anything at all, it is a comfortable and unhurried car journey to interesting places in the company of an entertaining guide. Did you know, for example, that Shaw named the character Henry Higgins in Pygmalion after the co-owner of a department store in Peckham? Or that the letter o in words such as come, love, one, and son ought to be u but that medieval scribes changed it to avoid a chain of identical downward strokes that were difficult to read? Or that the patron saint of booksellers, St John of God, is also — shades of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — the patron saint of firemen? Or that a parrot was the last surviving speaker of one South American language? Or that the towns of Welshpool and Llanfair PG — the one on Anglesey with the 58-letter name — were both renamed by railway companies? (The former was originally just Pool, renamed to avoid confusion with Poole in Dorset, the latter was formerly Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll and was gifted its overweighted name as a tourist attraction.)
You do have to accept that your guide will become highly discursive, even meandering at times. In places it’s not so much a narrative as a stream of consciousness. On one page, he moves within three brief paragraphs from Roget’s Thesaurus to J M Barrie’s Peter Pan to the origin of a Herefordshire place name to a comment about its namesake railway locomotive and to the system for classifying engines by their wheel arrangements.
In short, don’t expect a textbook. But if you would like to curl up for a few hours in the company of an erudite if free-associative literary and linguistic companion, you could do worse.
[David Crystal, By Hook or By Crook: A Journey In Search of English; published by HarperPress on 1 May 2007; hardback, pp314; ISBN-13 978-0-00-723558-2; ISBN-10 0-00-723558-5; publisher’s price £16.99.]