Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice

April 06, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

Weird and Wonderful Words, edited by Erin McKean, with illustrations by Roz Chast. Oxford University, 144 pages, $16.95.

The truly appropriate title for this book would have been "Logodaedaly," which means, of course, "ingenious or cunning use of words." That is one of something close to 1,000 entries and definitions in this utterly delightful, scholarly and imaginative collection of obscurities of the English language. The editor insists that weirdness alone was not enough to earn a place in this collection -- an assertion that turns out to be largely true. There is very little here that is simply technical and thus obscure. So aquamanile -- "a bowl or jug made in the form of an animal or bird" -- might well belong in your next conversation about the decoration of Martha Stewart's cell, should the poor lady end up in prison. You may be saved from an eternity of misery by remembering the lesson of the word titivil -- "a devil said to collect words mumbled, dropped, or omitted in the recitation of divine service, and to carry them to hell." The magnificent Roz Chast's illustrations are -- well -- ostrobogulous.

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