Altered English: A Historic Tour Through the Evolution...

Editor's Choice

July 14, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

Altered English: A Historic Tour Through the Evolution of Words and Their Meanings, by Jeffrey Kacirk (Pomegranate, 240 pages, $22.95).

Earth's literate population is divided among people for whom words are simple tools, with no life beyond utility, and others for whom words are magic, organic -- living things that twitch and grow and play. Kacirk, whose day job is as a chiropractor, is a marvel of amateur lexicography -- in the esteemed 18th-century sense of amateur: utterly serious, deeply informed, but not so employed. This is his third volume. The others were Forgotten English (1997) and The Word Museum (2000). Like them, Altered English is resolutely scholarly and genuinely entertaining. The 1,500 entries include some abandoned definitions that are fairly evident, but all offer stimulation for minds that lean toward word play. Then there are the startling or delightfully arcane: Bombast -- "the cotton wadding with which garments are stuffed out and lined." Metropolis -- "the seat or see of a metropolitan bishop." Vinaigrette -- "A small, two-wheeled carriage drawn or pushed by persons, in use in France [late 1600s-1800s]."

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