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One From the Archive: ‘Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities’ by Paul Anthony Jones ***

Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities is inspired by author Paul Anthony Jones’ popular Twitter feed, HaggardHawks.  Its blurb proclaims that Word Drops is ‘a language book unlike any other’.  In reality, one cannot help but notice it bears an almost striking resemblance to Mark Forsyth’s excellent The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (review here).

Word Drops provides one thousand ‘linguistic and etymological titbits that all fall together into one long interconnected chain…  with each fact neatly “dropping” into place beside the next’.   Its ‘smattering of unexpected connections and weird juxtapositions’ is ‘here to inspire your curiosity and delight into discovery’.  It also takes into account cultures and historical facts from all over the globe.

Throughout, Jones has included what he terms ‘footnotes’, but they cannot really be described as such; instead, they are paragraphs written in tiny font beneath some of the entries, which further explain or give background to a particular fact).  These are often useful, but do detract somewhat from the chain of facts when one has to keep stopping to read them.

Word Drops is easy enough to dip in and out of, and is not too taxing to read in a single sitting either.  Some of the facts which Jones has used – more of them than one would expect, really – already sit within the commonplace consciousness of fact finders.  Others are thankfully far more quirky and interesting.  Of the latter, such intriguing factual titbits as the following are included: ‘Gossamer means “goose-summer”, probably in reference to the similarity of gossamer to goose down’; ‘Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part 1 contains the earliest recorded use of the words upstairs and downstairs‘; ‘The Russian equivalent of “easier said than done” – blizok lokotok, da ne ukusish – means “your elbow is close, but you can’t bite it”‘; ‘In Middle English, muggle was another name for a fish tail’; and ‘The Scots word tartle refers to the awkward hesitation of having to introduce someone whose name you can’t remember’.

The facts do link into one another quite cleverly in places, and a lot of thought has clearly gone into their ordering and the general structure of the book.  We are therefore transported from such facts as ‘To perendinate is to put something off until the day after tomorrow’ to the definition of ‘checkmate’ five entries later, and from ‘In Finland, a poronkusema is the distance a reindeer can travel without stopping to urinate – roughly four and a half miles’, to ‘A quarantine was once the length of time a widow was permitted to remain in her deceased husband’s home’.  I found it rather a nice touch that it goes full circle, wherein the final fact links in with the first one, providing quite a fitting end to such a work.

Whilst Word Drops is relatively entertaining, it is not quite as wonderful or as well put together as Forsyth’s aforementioned work.  It is a real shame that the book contained a couple of grammatical errors too; rather ironic, given that the whole is a celebration of language.

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Flash Reviews (5th May 2014)

The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag (Flavia de Luce Mystery #2) by Alan Bradley ****
I was a little disappointed by the first Flavia de Luce mystery, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but when I spotted its sequel in my library sale for a ridiculously low price, I couldn’t resist picking it up.  I love the idea of these mysteries; Flavia de Luce, our protagonist, is an eleven-year-old chemistry loving crime solver.  The storyline of this novel, which deals with a travelling puppet show’s arrival in Bishop’s Lacey and a subsequent murder, is appealing.  The first line – ‘I was lying dead in the churchyard’ – acts as a hook to immediately reel the reader in.

The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag begins in 1950, and takes place in the small village in which Flavia lives with her father and siblings, Ophelia and Daphne, whom she does not at all get on with.  The writing style, told from Flavia’s own perspective, is engaging from the start – far more so than I remember the first book in the series being.  Bradley crafts her narrative voice seamlessly, and each word which she utters is believable of a relatively young girl growing up in the early 1950s.  Flavia is rather a complex construct too: she is amusing, sarcastic, witty, a little full of herself, and fills scrapbooks with details of murders and poisonings.  She is also a very perceptive protagonist and reads others well – like a mini Miss Marple, I suppose.  The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag is almost neo-Gothic in its style and plot at times, and I am now very much looking forward to reading the third book in the series.

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The Easter Parade by Richard Yates ****
I so enjoyed Revolutionary Road when I read it last year that I have been scouring shelves for Yates’ work ever since.  As I have been on a book-buying ban more often than not, I have just looked at the lovely Vintage covers longingly, but when I received a £10 voucher from Waterstone’s for filling up my latest stamp card (oh, you wonderful promotion, you!), I chose one of his novels almost immediately.  I must admit that I selected The Easter Parade at random, as I am fully intending to make my way through all of his novels in the near future.

The novel focuses upon the Grimes sisters, Sarah and Emily: ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce’, Yates tells us in the story’s opening line.  I am struck by how realistic his characters are.  They are all multi-dimensional, and they feel so lifelike at times that they could quite easily step from the page.  Emily is the protagonist of the piece, really.  She is such a complex construction that I found myself respecting her as a distinct being, even if I did find some of her actions a little odd or questionable at times.  The plot of The Easter Parade is rather a quiet one; Yates’ beautiful prose mainly involves itself with showing the changing relationships within the Grimes family.  To anyone who enjoys literary fiction, this novel comes highly recommended.

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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein ***
I had heard so many great things about this novel that I was half expecting it to be disappointing before I began to read it.  I love World War Two novels and find their every premise fascinating on the whole.  This storyline particularly appealed to me, telling as it does the story of a World War Two ‘enemy agent’, who is captured and is then consequently forced to ‘cough up’ her every recollection of the British War Effort.  Verity – the pseudonym which she goes by, as the novel’s title suggests – has just two weeks to write down everything which she remembers. Much of the plot – and, indeed, the entire second section, which is narrated by her – deals with her friend Maddie, and the things which the girls have done together.

Whilst the history of the period is set out well and details are built up as the story progresses, the novel is a Young Adult one in terms of its genre, and the almost chatty style of the prose does not sit overly well with the story which Wein has crafted.  The writing style also felt far too modern on the whole to fit the period.  I would have personally liked to see more exact and old-fashioned vocabulary, rather than the too-modern constructs which often find their way in.  The prose was a little lagging, and felt plodding in its pace at times.

Code Name Verity is a work of fiction, but it has been split up into separate sections, each with their own headings.  Whilst some of the plot was continuously told, it was forever being broken up in this manner, and this technique stopped it from being a story which the reader can successfully be immersed into.  The whole also felt a little disjointed in consequence.  Verity’s voice was not consistent enough, and everything felt a little flat, really, which was such a shame.  I also found portions of the novel very repetitive and unrealistic.  The style of Code Name Verity was not as I expected it to be, and whilst I have awarded it a rather generous three star rating (merely because it is better than a lot of the two star books which I have read of late), I ultimately found it rather disappointing.

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‘The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase’ by Mark Forsyth ****

In his newest non-fiction offering, Mark Forsyth – author of the popular books The Etymologicon and The Horologicon – sets out to explore the ‘big subject’ of rhetoric.  In The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase, he focuses particularly upon the figures of rhetoric – ‘not by saying something different, but by saying it in a different way’ – and the ways in which each can be used.

Forsyth has touched upon the foundations of English language, detailing the history of how rhetoric techniques came about and how they have been used since.  He weaves his way from obvious things like alliteration and antithesis, to the more obscure aposiopesis and adynaton. He states that his aim is to ‘explain the figures of rhetoric’, informing his readers that he has ‘simply adopted the rule of Humpty-Dumpty: When I use a rhetorical term, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’.

Forsyth has split up the text in his new book into short chapters, all of which link into one another.  The theme of connection which is central in The Etymologicon has been used here to good effect, giving the book a great structure.

‘The Elements of Eloquence’ (Icon Books)

Examples are given throughout, and Shakespeare is a common figure of focus.  His writing is cited through the entire book to give examples of almost every rhetorical technique which can be used within the English language, demonstrating everything from paradox to iambic pentameter.  In his characteristic chatty style, Forsyth states such things as: ‘Shakespeare simply knew that people are suckers for alliteration and that it’s pretty damned easy to make something alliterate (or that it’s surprisingly simple to add alliteration)’.  Forsyth also uses examples from a wealth of different sources in the fields of literature and music, from Dickens, Austen, Keats, Tennyson and Wilde to John Lennon, Neil Armstrong and Mick Jagger.

Each entry in The Elements of Eloquence is quite short – bitesize, almost, which makes it a great volume to read a little at a time.  Throughout, Forsyth practices what he preaches.  When writing about parataxis – or ‘Farmer’s English’ – for example, where everything is directly stated in separate, non-linking sentences, he adopts the same style in his description.  When he moves on to speak of how conjunctions can be used to ‘keep your sentence going and going forever’, he demonstrates how this is done.

The Elements of Eloquence is sure to delight word nerds the world over, and it will also greatly appeal to anyone who is interested in the many ways in which our great language can be put together.  It is fascinating and informative, and even grammarians are sure to learn something.

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