Why sexual intercourse will only make you a 'gazingstock'

Ever since Lynne Truss had a surprise Christmas hit with a witty guide to punctuation, publishers have been looking for the next quirky bestseller. John Morrish takes a look at some recent titles devoted to word usage, grammar and idiom, but concludes that nothing holds a candle to the great Dr Johnson
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The Independent Culture

Everybody is a comedian these days. The bookshop shelf groans under the weight of "wry looks" and "sideways glances" at "the lighter side" - and that's just in the language section.

For this state of affairs we can blame everyone from Steven Pinker, wise-cracking his way through evolutionary psychology, to Bill Bryson and Lynne Truss. The sad truth is that, while everyone has an interest - in both senses - in language, it is indigestible without a coating of sugar.

In the introduction to C U Next Tuesday: A Good Look at Bad Language (Aurum, £14.99), applied linguist Ruth Wajnryb takes a swipe at academic linguists, who have amassed a mountain of comment on such topics as inflection in English verbs but who have shown little interest in a human phenomenon like swearing. An Australian, she proves to have a comprehensive knowledge of the taboo lexicon, and lots of interesting things to say about it, dealing briskly with such topics as blasphemy, scatology, sexual attitudes and the anthropology of abuse.

Inevitably, given the competition, she tries a bit of spray-on comedy, but it is difficult to see who would be amused by the faux-epigrams at the start of each chapter ("'You want what on the fucking ceiling?' - Michelangelo"). She does better when she lets the humour emerge from the subject-matter. In a chapter called "Where the fuck?", she notes, accurately, that there is no adequate synonym for the word in its literal sense, but that such "referential" uses are now far outweighed by its use as a kind of intensifying adjective. And then she gives this Australian example: "I was walking along on this fucking fine morning, fucking sun shining away, little country fucking lane, and I meets up with this fucking girl. Fucking lovely she was, so we gets into fucking conversation and I takes her over a fucking gate into a fucking field and we had sexual intercourse."

Many of her judgements - particularly on degrees of taboo - may not translate. Of the word spelt out in her title, she declares it the most offensive of four-letter words and "a word that men mostly use to or about women". I agree with the first statement, but the second does not remotely equate to my experience. But then again, the Telegraph's reviewer maintained that the word is hardly offensive at all. Taboo is in the ear of the beholder. More shocking than any of the content, however, is the fact that this wide-ranging, useful, and even-handed book has no index.

Humour is not necessarily conducive to the honest transmission of information. As an occasional contributor to the reference/humour mountain, I admit that there is a temptation to shape your facts to suit your punchline. You can see this in Adam Jacot de Boinod's Tingo(Penguin £10), undoubtedly the funniest language book of the year. It extracts big laughs from foreign words and phrases with no English equivalents. Who can resist the Inuit "iktsuarpok", glossed as "to go outside often to see if someone is coming"? Or the Indonesian "neko-neko": "to have a creative idea which only makes things worse"? Or "tingo" itself: "to borrow objects from a friend's house, one by one, until there's nothing left"?

The model is The Meaning of Liff, a 1980s stocking-filler by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, only here the words are supposedly real. They may be, but there is no doubt that the author has selected the most entertaining translation of each word and carefully polished it. The humour wears thin as the book proceeds, but at least it emerges from the subject-matter rather than being sprinkled over the top.

Tingo is arranged thematically and once again has no index: humour 1, reference 0. A much better bet, if you want to understand "duende", "wabi" or "svoboda", is C J Moore's In Other Words (Oxford, £10), which is Tingo's straight-faced doppelganger: same format, same price, similar design and illustrations, but arranged by language and indexed. It's the kind of book, however, where the jokes are signalled by exclamation marks.

If English idioms amuse you, you might be tempted by Harry Oliver's March Hares And Monkey's Uncles (Metro, £9.99) but you can do better. Much of its content is bleedin' obvious - who couldn't guess that the expression "mission impossible" comes from the TV series Mission Impossible? - and Oliver has a weakness for what academics call "folk etymology". He suggests, for instance, that "barking mad" refers to a medieval lunatic asylum in that district. Unlikely: as Michael Quinion explains on his excellent World Wide Words website (www.worldwidewords.org), the phrase was first recorded in the 1930s. Quinion's own Port Out, Starboard Home (Penguin, £7.99), based on real lexicography, is a valuable corrective to such mythologising.

Ducks in a Row: The Definitive Guide to Office English, by Carl Newbrook (Short Books £9.99) catalogues the self-aggrandising jargon of contemporary business. Newbrook defines each term, supplies an ironic comment and then tells you what kind of manager might use it: these (the "Machiavellian manager", for instance) are profiled elsewhere in the book. While it is good to have an exhaustive survey of this gibberish, this elaborate supporting apparatus adds little. It would have been more useful and interesting - but harder work - if the book had supplied the sources of some of these tropes. But at least the list is alphabetical.

Faced with linguistic change, commentators have traditionally been either "descriptive" or "proscriptive". Description holds the academic high ground, but proscription - the desire to control usage - has its supporters. Orwell, let us not forget, was eloquent on the dangers inherent in the idea of language as a "natural growth", declaring it "an instrument which we shape for our own purposes".

That idea thrives in journalism, where style books and sub-editors struggle to impose grammatical coherence and conformity. In Quite Literally: Problem Words and How to Use Them (Routledge £10.99), Wynford Hicks, a teacher of journalists, uses that tradition to elucidate a series of what Bill Bryson, before he became an all-round entertainer, called "troublesome" words. There's an element here of riding both horses, description and proscription, at the same time. In the case of words like "fulsome" and "enormity", Hicks tells us their traditional - some would say "real" - meanings, but he also notes how people tend to use them now.

A similarly pragmatic approach applies to Hicks's grammatical policies. He is too canny, for instance, not to know that the widespread prejudice against "hopefully" is nonsense: no one complains about the identical construction in a sentence such as "Thankfully, the anorexic ate a hearty breakfast". Nonetheless, he gently warns against it, on the practical grounds that it upsets people and prejudices them against your message. This is realistic, and will suit many people, but when it comes to reference books I prefer the smack of firm government. I want guidance, not a discussion, and that's what I get from the New Oxford Dictionary For Writers and Editors (Oxford £12.99), where such usages are tactfully labelled "disp." for "disputed".

At the other end of the descriptive/proscriptive continuum comes Susie Dent's Fanboys and Overdogs (OUP £10.99), a determinedly non-judgemental "language report" about a year in the life of English. Oxford is relentless in its efforts to secure its position as the leading English language "brand". These annual surveys advertise just how hip the institution has become, while keeping the more fanciful neologisms ("fugly"? "clicktrance"? "furkid"?) out of its reference books. But Dent and the Oxford team have a sharp eye and ear for less obvious developments, ensuring that this slim volume is both informative and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the language of cosmetics, where the word "visible" - as in "wrinkles appear visibly reduced" - is proving a valuable prophylactic against regulations on misleading advertising.

Nothing in the linguistic controversies of our day would have surprised Dr Johnson, whose dictionary was published 250 years ago. Johnson intended to proscribe, for the health of English, but increasingly settled for description. David Crystal's Johnson's Dictionary: An Anthology (Penguin £19.99) provides a representative selection from the great work, excellently presented and annotated. The anthology, representing only 10 per cent of the original, focuses on Johnson's brilliantly concise and lucid definitions, the insights he provides into life in the 18th century and earlier, and on the idiosyncracies that make his dictionary so distinctive.

This is a tremendously engaging anthology, not least for what we might call the Tingo factor. How have we managed without "curtain-lecture", defined as "a reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed"? Or "gazingstock": "a person stared at with scorn or abhorrence"? Or "vaticide": "A murderer of poets"?

To order copies of any of the titles mentioned above, some at discounted rates, contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897.

John Morrish is the author of 'Frantic Semantics' and 'More Frantic Semantics' (Pan)

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