Books In Brief // Language

January 06, 2008|By Publisher's Weekly, Oxford University Press, Bloomsbury

Here are some books for people who love the English language and its many uses:

Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists

By James Geary Bloomsbury USA / 448 pages / $19.95

Both an expert and a collector, James Geary has devoted his life to aphorisms - and the last few years to organizing, indexing and even translating them. The result is Geary's Guide, featuring classic writers like Voltaire, Twain, Shakespeare and Nietzsche, but also more surprising figures, such as Woody Allen, Muhammad Ali, Emily Dickinson and Mae West. Some of the aphorists appear in English for the first time. But it is more than just a conventional anthology. It is also an encyclopedia, containing brief biographies of each author in addition to a selection of his or her aphorisms. The book is a field guide, too, with aphorists organized into eight different "species," such as Comics, Critics & Satirists; Icons & Iconoclasts; and Painters & Poets. The book's two indexes - by author and by subject - make it easily searchable, while its unique organizational structure and Geary's lively biographical entries make it different from all previous reference works.

How Not To Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms

By R.W. Holder / Oxford University Press, USA / 384 pages / $18.95

Delightful, quirky and exhaustive, Holder's dictionary of American and British circumlocutions is the kind of reference work that one can spend hours browsing through happily. This third edition includes thousands of alphabetized entries for both old-fashioned and contemporary terms. The term "uncover nakedness," for example, used be a standard biblical translation for "copulate," though many people wouldn't recognize that use today. (Incidentally, "to line" also meant to copulate, and Holder cites part of Shakespeare's As You Like It as an example of such use: "Winter garments must be lined/So must slender Rosalind.") "Deep six," "underprivileged" and "rip off" still enjoy healthy use, and in Ireland "scuttered" still means "drunk." For Holder, however, this project is about more than just having fun with word games. In fine Orwellian spirit, Holder writes in his introduction that euphemism is "the language of evasion, of hypocrisy, of prudery and of deceit," which makes it all the more important to be able to see through the embroidery.

Filthy Shakespeare

By Pauline Kiernan / Gotham / $20

This 300-page romp of a read reveals how much dirtier the plays sounded to the Bard's red-light-district audiences. It's a fun way to develop an appreciation for the rough edges of 16th-century daily life, and the line "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" will never sound the same to you again.

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Sixth Edition

Oxford / $175

The new, two-volume, 3,745-page SOED is a work of heroic distillation. The complete OED currently stands at 20 volumes and doesn't include the 2,000-plus new words and phrases that this edition adds. Though many obsolete words have been culled, it remains the "most reliable and capacious" of all abridged dictionaries.

Divided by a Common Language

By Christopher Davies / Houghton Mifflin / $11

Christopher Davies' guide to the differences between British and American English is a "very fun" read for any language fan. This reprint will be especially cherished, though, by crossword puzzlers and British murder-mystery aficionados. For these readers, "there could hardly be a more useful book."

Sources: Publisher's Weekly, Oxford University Press, Bloomsbury

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