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12 delightful resources for word nerds everywhere

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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My recent post about specialized dictionaries got me thinking about the fun books and sites I have encountered about words and language. I thought I would share a slightly off-topic post about my geeky love for words and language.

The most recent bit of geeky word stuff I’ve seen is Weird Al Yankovic’s gift to word nerds everywhere, a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” called “Word Crimes.”

If audio is your media of choice (or, if you have a long commute, like me) you may want to check out these podcasts:

  • A Way With Words – Available on some public radio stations, this free podcast allows listeners to call in with questions and stories about language. They will discuss the origins or words and phrases, regional and ethnic differences in language, interesting idioms and much more. This podcast is a recent discovery for me, and I’ve enjoyed listening. iTunes link.
  • Word Nerds – This podcast was produced for several years between 2005 and 2010. Although it is no longer updated, old episodes of their very lively discussions are available to download. I was disappointed when they stopped producing episodes, but it makes me happy that episodes are still available. iTunes link.

Websites

  • Urban dictionary – The go-to source for getting at the nuance of many words, especially slang and other terms that might not have widespread use. Also good for a laugh.
  • The OxfordWords blog – From the folks who bring you the Oxford Dictionaries (including, of course, the OED). Posts include information about the history of the dictionary, recent news about language (like confusion over the title of the TV show Extant, or the languages used in Game of Thrones), and information about word origins (including new discoveries and words relevant to recent events like the world cup).

Books

Bryson, B., & MacCall, B. (1999). Made in America. London: Black Swan.

Bryson, B. (1991). The mother tongue: English & how it got that way. New York: Avon Books.

Book cover: The Mother Tongue

First of all, everyone should go out and read everything Bill Bryson has ever written. He is funny and insightful, and a pleasure to read. His two books on language discuss two aspects of the development of the English language. In The mother tongue, Bryson discusses the origin of the English language in general. In Made in America, he explores the American part of American English. Bryson discusses American place names, Native American words and phrases and the reasons for our variable mispronunciations.

Keyes, R. (2010). I love it when you talk retro: Hoochie coochie, double whammy, drop a dime, and the forgotten origins of American speech. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Book cover: I love it when you talk retro

This book focuses on the idioms we use in everyday language, often without knowing the origin of the terms. How many young people know the origin of “drinking the Kool-Aid”? How many people in general know the origin of the phrase “cut to the chase”? This is a fun way to explore some of our more colorful and obscure idioms.

Mohr, M. (2013). Holy shit: A brief history of swearing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Book cover: Holy shit: A brief history of swearing

I just read this book this summer, and I can’t recommend it enough. Written with a sense of humor, Mohr gets at the reasons why we swear, and why the words we consider obscene have changed so much over time. She discusses the role of profane swearing (the “holy” part), as well as the emphasis on bodily functions (the “shit” part).

Truss, L. (2003). Eats, shoots & leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation. London: Profile Books.

Our written language is a combination of words and punctuation. Using the wrong punctuation can annoy the reader, merely confuse them, or completely misdirect them. If you have every felt frustrated about the incorrect use of quotation marks, or if you have strong feelings on the use of the Oxford comma (Yes!), this book is for you. If you have kids, you may also want to check out Truss’ hilariously illustrated picture books about commas and apostrophes: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: why, commas really do make a difference! and The girl’s like spaghetti: why, you can’t manage without apostrophes!

Winchester, S. (1998). The professor and the madman: A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English dictionary. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Book cover: The professor and the madman

This is a fairly popular book, and the first I ever read by Simon Winchester. It is a book that had me pulling out my dictionary every other page. For those who are unfamiliar, the Oxford English Dictionary is a massive multivolume work that traces most known definitions of a term, as well as providing quotes showing their use throughout the history of English. It was the work of many volunteers who read through older literature looking for words and quotations to send in. The “madman” of the title is an imprisoned civil war veteran who contributed many of quotes used in the original edition.

Wolman, D. (2008). Righting the mother tongue: From Olde English to email, the tangled story of English spelling. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.

Book cover: Righting the mother tongue

I am a horrible speller (and with predictive text and spell-check I will probably never get better). This book talks about the vagaries of English spelling and wide variety of things that have influenced the way we spell different words.

I’m always looking for more books and resources about language. What would you recommend?

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. SteveO 12:50 pm 07/24/2014

    Richard Lederer’s “Anguished English” and others are pretty fun as well.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bonnie Swoger in reply to Bonnie Swoger 12:52 pm 07/24/2014

    Thanks for the tip! Lederer’s books look very interesting and amusing.

    Link to this
  3. 3. SteveO 12:53 pm 07/24/2014

    Oops just saw that Lederer was the founder of A Way With Words… Still you probably would enjoy the books.

    Link to this
  4. 4. finstercat 3:40 pm 07/24/2014

    “Says You!” on public radio (WGBH in the Boston area and at saysyou.net) is great fun!

    Link to this
  5. 5. eyrieowl 5:04 pm 07/24/2014

    “Common Errors in English Usage”, by Paul Brians. I haven’t read the published text, but the website is fantastic. http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html

    Link to this
  6. 6. BorkMcGork 11:30 pm 07/24/2014

    The online etymology dictionary at http://www.etymonline.com/ is one of my favourite word-nerd sites.

    Link to this
  7. 7. MikeSaffran 3:48 pm 07/28/2014

    Echoing eyrieowl … Paul Brians’ “Common Errors in English Usage” is excellent (I have it … and have read it). And “Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go” is very good (though I might own the only copy in existence!). ;-) Plus, I loved (and still miss) “The Writer’s Art” newspaper columns by the late James J. Kilpatrick. Years ago, he had a book by the same name. I do not have it — but here’s a nice tribute piece about him … along with some of his sage advice:
    http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/James-Kilpatrick-On-The-Writers-Art.htm

    Link to this

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