Incoming! Books About Words

(Incoming! is a feature at Ms. Bookish that chronicles some of the recent new book arrivals at the Ms. Bookish household.)

I’ve been getting prepared for NaNoWriMo; the novel I’ll be working on in November is a middle-grade fantasy novel that involves words (as words, that is – because of course, the actual writing of it will involve words!).

So I’ve been researching words, and it’s proving to be a lot of fun!

I thought it would be interesting to highlight the books I’m currently looking through as part of my research – along with a few that I picked up along the way simply that won’t be useful for research purposes but are just too fun to pass by.

Phraseology: Thousands of Bizarre Origins, Unexpected Connections, and Fascinating Facts about English’s Best Expressions, by Barbara Kipfer

Phraseology: Thousands of Bizarre Origins, Unexpected Connections, and Fascinating Facts about English's Best ExpressionsSynopsis (from the back cover):

Phraseology is the ultimate collection of everything you never knew about the wonderful phrases found in the English language. It contains information about phrase history and etymology; unusual, lost, or uncommon phrases; how phrases are formed; and more than 7,000 facts about common English phrases.

Practical enough to be used as a reference book but so fun that every book lover will want to read it straight through, Phraseology contains such engrossing tidbits as:

ACROSS THE BOARD is an allusion to the board displaying the odds in a horse race

ARTESIAN WELL gets its name from Artois, where such wells were first made

BEST MAN originated in Scotland, where the groom kidnapped his bride with the aid of friends, including the toughest and bravest – the best man.

First line(s): Phraseology is a collection of really interesting things you probably do not know about thousands and thousands of phrases.

Where I got this book: Rebecca from The Book Lady’s Blog recommended this to me when we were having a Twitter discussion about this recent post of mine. I went straight to Chapters and bought this one that very night!

Format & Pages: Trade paperback, 301 pages


The Word Detective, by Evan Morris

The Word DetectiveSynopsis (from the jacket flap):

Comic, skeptic, cyber-sleuth, syndicated columnist, and inspired wordsmith, Evan Morris is the Word Detective. Morris’s unique approach to language and his distinctive brand of humor account for his loyal following of readers who wonder about everything from soup to nuts – and that means the origins of the phrase soup to nuts, as well as hundreds of other perplexing words and phrases.

The Word Detective is a collection of Morris’s language columns, which appear in newspapers around the world and on his popular Web site. The Q & A format makes for lively and unusual interactions between Morris and his readers: Dan from Brooklyn is perturbed by television newscasts that incorrectly use the word factoid to mean “a piece of trivia.” (Morris agrees and adds that factoid was actually coined by Norman Mailer in 1973 to mean “a rumor disguised as a fact.”) Tim via the Internet asks how the word moxie came to mean “courage.” (Morris replies that Moxie was, and still is, the name of a soft drink with a taste so intense it takes real gumption to swallow the stuff.) Whether the question is from a student hoping to win a word dispute with his professor or a daughter-in-law trying to wow her mother-in-law with an esoteric phrase, the Word Detective snoops around, does the legwork, and uncovers the answers.

First line(s): It all started with sticky dimes.

Where I got this book: I came across this when I was at the library looking for some specific “words” titles. It isn’t really relevant to my research but I just couldn’t resist.

Format & Pages: Hardcover, 228 pages.


Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language, by Richard Lederer

Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our LanguageSynopsis (from Amazon):

Anguished English is the impossibly funny anthology of accidental assaults upon our language. From bloopers and blunders to Signs of the Times to Mixed Up Metaphors…from Two-Headed Headlines to Mangling Modifiers, here is an outrageous treasury of assaults upon our common language that will leave you roaring with delight and laughter.

First line(s): It is truly astounding what havoc students can wreak upon the chronicles of the human race.

Where I got this book: This is another book that’s not really relevant to my research for my NaNoWriMo novel, but I recently mooched this book from Bookmooch and it’s too fun to leave out of this post.

Format & Pages: Mass paperback, 175 pages



You’ve Got Ketchup on Your Muumuu: An A–to–Z Guide to English Words from Around the World, by Eugene Ehrlich

You've Got Ketchup on Your Muumuu: An A--to--Z Guide to English Words from Around the WorldSynopsis (from the jacket flap):

With dry wit and remarkable erudition, Eugene Ehrlich takes us on an eye-opening tour of our ever-changing language, showing us how English has, throughout its history, seamlessly sewn words from other languages into its original fabric. He reveals that the language we call our own has in fact been culled from the languages of ancient invaders, such as the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, and the French.

Ehrlich’s comprehensive research and vast lingual experience bring to light what has until now been hidden from the general audience: the origins of some of our favorite and well-used words. The word graffiti, for example, comes from the Italian word meaning “scratches.” The word for one of our favorite breakfast foods, bagel, originated with the German Beugel, meaning “a ring.” And ketchup comes from the Chinese kéjap, which literally means “fish sauce.” So why do we put it on our burgers and fries?

In the clear style his readers have come to expect, Ehrlich effortlessly illuminates the origins, purposes, and meanings of once-foreign words that have become part of the rich weave of our language.

First line(s): (from the preface)

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” – Polonius, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Old Polonius was talking about prudence in managing one’s finances, not about borrowing and lending words.

But just as English words are increasingly taken into other languages, English throughout its history has continually picked up words from other languages and treated such words as its own, calling them English.

Where I got this book: I picked this one up from the library.

Format & Pages: Hardcover, 285 pages


Scholastic Dictionary Of Idioms, by Marvin Terban

Scholastic Dictionary Of IdiomsSynopsis (from Amazon):

Cat got your tongue? Penny for your thoughts? Come again? Every day, idioms bring color to our speech. Since they don’t really mean what they say, idioms can stump even the native English-speaker. Marvin Terban makes understanding idioms “as easy as pie” with the revised SCHOLASTIC DICTIONARY OF IDIOMS. Explanations for, and origins of, more than 700 everyday American idioms, complete with kid-friendly sample sentences. The entries are amusing as well as educational. Alphabetical listing and cross-referencing index makes finding idioms a “piece of cake.”

First dictionary entry:

Ace up Your Sleeve

“I don’t know how Henry is going to get his mom to buy him a bike, but I’m sure he has an ace up his sleeve.”

Meaning: a surprise or secret advantage, especially something tricky that is kept hidden until needed.

Origin: Back in the 1500s most people didn’t have pockets in their clothes, so they kept things in their sleeves. Later on, magicians hid objects, even small live animals, up their sleeves, and then pulled them out unexpectedly to surprise their audiences. In the 1800s dishonest card players secretly slipped a winning card, often an ace, up their sleeves and pulled it out when nobody was looking to win the game.

Where I got this book: I picked this one up from the library, and it is very relevant to my research! If it comes in as useful as I think it will, I’ll probably end up getting my own copy.

Format & Pages: Trade paperback, 245 pages


Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right , by Bill Bryson

Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting It Right Synopsis (from the jacket flap):

As usual Bill Bryson says it best: “English is a dazzlingly idiosyncratic tongue, full of quirks and irregularities that often seem willfully at odds with logic and common sense. This is a language where ‘cleave’ can mean to cut in half or to hold two halves together; where the simple word ‘set’ has 126 different meanings as a verb, 58 as a noun, and 10 as a participial adjective; where if you can run fast you are moving swiftly, but if you are stuck fast you are not moving at all; [and] where ‘colonel,’ ‘freight,’ ‘once,’ and ‘ache’ are strikingly at odds with their spellings.” As a copy editor for the London Times in the early 1980s, Bill Bryson felt keenly the lack of an easy-to-consult, authoritative guide to avoiding the traps and snares in English, and so he brashly suggested to a publisher that he should write one. Surprisingly, the proposition was accepted, and for “a sum of money carefully gauged not to cause embarrassment or feelings of overworth,” he proceeded to write that book–his first, inaugurating his stellar career.

Now, a decade and a half later, revised, updated, and thoroughly (but not overly) Americanized, it has become Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, more than ever an essential guide to the wonderfully disordered thing that is the English language. With some one thousand entries, from “a, an” to “zoom,” that feature real-world examples of questionable usage from an international array of publications, and with a helpful glossary and guide to pronunciation, this precise, prescriptive, and–because it is written by Bill Bryson–often witty book belongs on the desk of every person who cares enough about the language not to maul or misuse or distort it.

First line(s): (from the introduction)

The physicist Richard Feynman once remarked that every time a colleague from the humanities department complained that his students couldn’t spell a common word like seize or accommodate, Feynman wanted to reply, “Then there must be something wrong with the way you spell it.”

Where I got this book: I picked this one up while browsing at the library. As I’m making up a collection of random words, I thought I’d dip randomly into this book and pick out different words to add to my collection. Also, I really enjoy reading Bill Bryson’s writing!

Format & Pages: Hard cover, 241 pages

14 thoughts on “Incoming! Books About Words

  1. Margot

    You found a great selection of word books. Word Detective reminded me of my granddaughter’s favorite TV show – Word Girl. It’s on PBS so I’m not sure if you get that in Canada. It’s a show featuring words and a super-hero named Word Girl. It’s fun for kids BUT adults (like me) love it too. See if you can find it. (Netflix?)

    I’m pulling for you on your November Adventure. Don’t worry about writing too many posts. We’ll still be here in December.
    .-= Margot´s last blog ..Book Review: A Separate Country =-.

    1. Belle

      I don’t belong to Netflix, but my library has lots of PBS titles. I’ll definitely check to see if they have Word Girl! (We do have PBS here in Canada but our household is cable- and satellite-free …)

      And thank you, Margot, for your support! Knowing me, I’ll either be one extreme or the other during November – I’ll either post way to much, or just a trickle!

  2. Janel

    I cracked up when I saw the first line: It all started with sticky dimes! Sounds like you found a great bunch of books for your research. Actually, I think my kids and I would like some of these. They sound like a lot of fun.
    .-= Janel´s last blog ..Book Review: Casting Spells =-.

    1. Belle

      I just checked it out, Alyce – it looks like a really fun read! I’d love to learn about the people behind the words we use. Another one on the list!

  3. Belle

    Thanks, everyone – I am, as always, very glad to have inflated your TBR and wish lists (no, no, it’s not revenge, honestly, it’s not. I’m paying you back. It’s a good thing, really) :)


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