Friday, April 03, 2015

The Whatchamacallit by Danny Danziger & Mark McCrum

Fans of Ursula Le Guin know that everyone has a true name, and that those names have power. But it's not just people -- things have names as well. And maybe you can't control a philtrum or aglet or gnomon just by knowing their names, but you can impress your friends. (And that's not too bad, here in the real world.)

The Whatchamacallit is a book of those names, as compiled and explained by the British jobbing writers Danny Danziger and Mark McCrum. It spans from Achemes (the seeds on a strawberry) to Zucchetto (a skullcap worn by Catholic clergy), with stops at most of the usual suspects along the way -- allen wrenches, dongles, interrobangs, MacGuffins, pips, and tines.

Danziger and McCrum provide a brief entry for each word -- there are about a hundred of them -- explaining what it means and then going off in one direction or another about that item: sometimes about the history of the thing, or the names of other parts of the larger thing, or similar things and their names. It might not always be the specific things you wanted to know right at that second, but it's all interesting and reasonably authoritative.

This is clearly a book for the curious and for word-lovers, but luckily those two traits are epidemic on the Internet. (So it's entirely appropriate to discuss it here.) It is also a book that will serve admirably in the smallest room of your house, which is an important niche for books -- and one not discussed much. It's amusing and informative and unlikely to offend anyone, which all makes it close to perfect for the kind of book it is.

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