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Many Americans interested in language have sometime in the last thirty years come across the US quarterly called Verbatim. It was founded in 1974 by Laurence Urdang, who edited it for its first 23 years. The publication was feared defunct at one point but was resurrected with the aid of a philanthropic grant.

The cover of 'Verbatim'

The current editor, Erin McKean, has assembled an anthology of an eclectic group of articles from the whole history of the journal, in the process bringing together contributions from some of the better-known names in linguistics, dictionary making, and language writing, including the late Frederick Cassidy, Frank Abate, Richard Lederer, and Jesse Sheidlower, as well as Laurence Urdang himself.

Some idea of the fun within this anthology is obvious from the titles of a few of its 58 articles: Sexual Intercourse in American College Dictionaries, British Football Chants, Thunderboxes and Chuggies, Noun Overuse Phenomenon Article, Nullspeak: A Question of Rotating Strawberry Madonnas, and Never Ask a Uruguayan Waitress for a Little Box: She Might Apply Her Foot to Your Eyelet.

If you wish to find out what these tantalising titles refer to, you’ll just have to buy the book. But in tasting my way through the text during what would otherwise have been a boring rail journey, many things jumped out at me. Erin McKean described what she calls McKean’s Law: “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error”. An article on US place names reveals the existence of Toad Suck in Arkansas, Knockemstiff in Ohio, and Hell and Gone Creek in Oklahoma. Walter C Kidney persuaded in another piece that a verbunkos was a dance performed to persuade people to enlist in the Hungarian army. It turns out there is a curious link between breakfast, scarecrow, and pickpocket (clue: check the grammatical function of their elements). Another article provided a fascinating insight into the vocabulary of the popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The anthology, like its parent journal, inevitably has a strong US bias — broadened only by occasional pieces such as one on Sussex dialect — but most of the articles can be read with pleasure by anyone interested in the vagaries of the English language.

My train arrived at its London terminus almost before I realised it. Thank you, Verbatim and Erin McKean, for filling the time so pleasantly.

[Erin McKean [ed], Verbatim, published by Harcourt in October 2001; pp352; ISBN 0-15-60129-X; publisher’s price US$14.00. Not formally available outside North America, but obtainable from online booksellers. See the journal Web site for more information, including selected articles.]

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Page created 10 Nov 2001