I'm finishing up a vocabulary project now, and one of the pleasures of the work is simply thinking about words and their many meanings and shades of meaning, and why this word works when used in this way when that one doesn't.
Yesterday I stopped in at the Friends of the Library bookstore and picked up a few books: a book of Matthew Arnold's poems, a Norton Anthology of English Literature because I thought it would come in handy with this new venture, The Bluest Eye (I don't know how I missed reading it, especially as I read and very much admired Sula and Beloved), and The Life of Language: The Fascinating Ways Words Are Born, Live, & Die.
The latter is what I'm reading. I confess as early as page 3, I was a bit put off by this:
We enjoy Hollywood's versions of such 19th century novels as Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice, but would find reading the novels of Dickens and Jane Austen pretty hard going because of their highly formal and convoluted language.
Speak for yourself, pal. Dickens, yes, well, sometimes he do wander a bit in the thickets in his diction. But Jane Austen? A writer known for her economy of language? Not to mention the sheer grace. And to suggest that these two novels--two of my favorite novels, two novels I read at least once a year and have done for lo, these many years because it is such a pleasure--are "pretty hard going"? Can we all agree that this is the swamp of low expectations? What I find hard going is trying to read bad writing.
Don't let this little sticking point keep you from reading this book, though, if you like words and you be so inclined. It's very interesting and fun to read, and it's fun to think about how all these words came into being, how new words are coming, and how words no longer serviceable will return to some dusty parchment in a library in the sky. Written for Everyman, not for the linguist, the authors are quick to tell you.
*In the immortal words of DL Incognito.