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Books On Words and Language for “National Dictionary Day”

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Books On Words and Language for “National Dictionary Day”

books on words and language

October 16 is “National Dictionary Day” in honor of lexicographer Noah Webster, born on this day in 1758, and best known for compiling the famous dictionary that bears his name. Webster’s impact on our language, however, extends far beyond merely recording the definitions of words. As Britannica.com notes, “Webster was instrumental in giving American English a dignity and vitality of its own. Both his speller and dictionary reflected his principle that spelling, grammar, and usage should be based upon the living, spoken language rather than on artificial rules.” With that in mind, here are some books about the fantastically fluid world of words, language, and meaning that you can check out with your Livingston Library card.

(Descriptions provided by the publishers)

words on the move

Words on the Move: Why English Won’t and Can’t Sit Still (Like, Literally) by John McWhorter

A bestselling linguist takes us on a lively tour of how the English language is evolving before our eyes and why we should embrace this transformation and not fight it. Language is always changing — but we tend not to like it. We understand that new words must be created for new things, but the way English is spoken today rubs many of us the wrong way. Whether its the use of literally to mean “figuratively” rather than “by the letter” or the way young people use LOL and like or business jargon like Whats the ask?, it often seems as if the language is deteriorating before our eyes. But the truth is different and a lot less scary, as John McWhorter shows in this delightful and eye-opening exploration of how English has always been in motion and continues to evolve today.

Strange to Say: Etymology as Serious Entertainment by Deborah Warren

In her witty account of the origins of many English words and expressions, Deborah Warren educates as she entertains-and entertain she does, leading her readers through the amazing labyrinthian history of related words. “Language,” she writes, “is all about mutation.”

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson

With dazzling wit and astonishing insight, Bill Bryson-the acclaimed author of The Lost Continent-brilliantly explores the remarkable history, eccentricities, resilience and sheer fun of the English language. From the first descent of the larynx into the throat (why you can talk but your dog can’t), to the fine lost art of swearing, Bryson tells the fascinating, often uproarious story of an inadequate, second-rate tongue of peasants that developed into one of the world’s largest growth industries.

The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

A satirical dictionary written by American Civil War soldier, wit, and writer Ambrose Bierce, consisting of common words followed by humorous and satirical definitions.

The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy

“If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d sound like an American.” “English accents are the sexiest.” “Americans have ruined the English language.” “Technology means everyone will have to speak the same English.” Such claims about the English language are often repeated but rarely examined. Professor Lynne Murphy is on the linguistic front line. In The Prodigal Tongue she explores the fiction and reality of the special relationship between British and American English. By examining the causes and symptoms of American Verbal Inferiority Complex and its flipside, British Verbal Superiority Complex, Murphy unravels the prejudices, stereotypes, and insecurities that shape our attitudes to our own language.

word by word

Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Have you ever tried to define the word “is?” Do you have strong feelings about the word (and, yes, it is a word) “irregardless?” Did you know that OMG was first used in 1917, in a letter to Winston Churchill? These are the questions that keep lexicographers up at night. While most of us might take dictionaries for granted, the process of writing dictionaries is in fact as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what and how to define, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language.

Because the Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

A linguistically informed look at how our digital world is transforming the English language. Language is humanity’s most spectacular open-source project, and the internet is making our language change faster and in more interesting ways than ever before. Internet conversations are structured by the shape of our apps and platforms, from the grammar of status updates to the protocols of comments and @replies. Linguistically inventive online communities spread new slang and jargon with dizzying speed. What’s more, social media is a vast laboratory of unedited, unfiltered words where we can watch language evolve in real time. Even the most absurd-looking slang has genuine patterns behind it. Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch explores the deep forces that shape human language and influence the way we communicate with one another.

Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings by Jez Burrows

Jez Burrows opened the New Oxford American Dictionary and sat, mystified. Instead of the definition of “study” he was looking for, he found himself drawn to the strangely conspicuous, curiously melodramatic sentence that followed it: “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.” It read like a tiny piece of fiction on the lam and hiding out in the dictionary–and it wasn’t alone. Was it possible to reunite these fugitive fictions, to combine and remix example sentences to form new works? With this spark and a handful of stories shared online, Dictionary Stories was born. This genre-bending and wildly inventive collection glows with humor, emotion, and intellect. Effortlessly transcending sentence level, Burrows lights between the profound and the absurd, transporting readers into moments, worlds, and experiences of remarkable variety. Featuring original illustrations by the author, Dictionary Stories is a giddy celebration of the beauty and flexibility of language.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

As Random House’s copy chief, Dreyer has upheld the standards of the legendary publisher for more than two decades. He is beloved by authors and editors alike–not to mention his followers on social media–for deconstructing the English language with playful erudition. Now he distills everything he has learned from the myriad books he has copyedited and overseen into a useful guide not just for writers but for everyone who wants to put their best prose foot forward. As authoritative as it is amusing, Dreyer’s English offers lessons on punctuation, from the underloved semicolon to the enigmatic en dash; the rules and nonrules of grammar, including why it’s OK to begin a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’ and to confidently split an infinitive; and why it’s best to avoid the doldrums of the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers, including ‘very, ‘ ‘rather, ‘ ‘of course, ‘ and the dreaded ‘actually.’ Dreyer will let you know whether ‘alright’ is all right (sometimes) and even help you brush up on your spelling–though, as he notes, ‘The problem with mnemonic devices is that I can never remember them.’ And yes: ‘Only godless savages eschew the series comma.’ 

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Mary Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker’s copy department, maintaining its celebrated high standards. Now she brings her vast experience, good cheer, and finely sharpened pencils to help the rest of us in a boisterous language book as full of life as it is of practical advice. Between You & Me features Norris’s laugh-out-loud descriptions of some of the most common and vexing problems in spelling, punctuation, and usage–comma faults, danglers, “who” vs. “whom,” “that” vs. “which,” compound words, gender-neutral language–and her clear explanations of how to handle them. Down-to-earth and always open-minded, she draws on examples from Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and the Lord’s Prayer, as well as from The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace, and Gillian Flynn. She takes us to see a copy of Noah Webster’s groundbreaking Blue-Back Speller, on a quest to find out who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick, on a pilgrimage to the world’s only pencil-sharpener museum, and inside the hallowed halls of The New Yorker and her work with such celebrated writers as Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders. Readers–and writers–will find in Norris neither a scold nor a softie but a wise and witty new friend in love with language and alive to the glories of its use in America, even in the age of autocorrect and spell-check. As Norris writes, “The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can’t let it push you around.

Joe, Adult Services & Acquisitions

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