Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Cassell Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by Nigel Rees

Books about words are fun, so I grab them when I see them. The Cassell Dictionary of Word & Phrase Origins sat around a long time before I finally got to read it -- nearly twenty years, in fact, since it's the 1998 second edition of a book originally published in 1996. And that means that all of the "recent" slang included to be hip and au courant was very, very old indeed.

Some categories of book -- of many things, actually, but let's stick to books for now -- have a watershed at the birth of the Internet, and are completely different afterward. Word and phrase origins are one of the big ones -- it's not just the rise of Urban Dictionary and things like that which democratized the idea, but the ability to do massive literature searches quickly and to easily find earlier citations is something that just didn't exist in 1996.

Come to think of it, is there any column/blog/writer doing that? Looking up phrases regularly and digging into how old they really are? That's something I'd love to see regularly. (If it does exist, though, it's probably a podcast. I hate podcasts -- I'm not interested in people talking at me.)

This book is the work of one guy -- one smart guy, who knows the standard references and uses them, who doesn't go too far out on a limb to make a judgment and honestly notes where the origins of something are confused or disputed, and who can write entertainingly in a short space about what a lot of people would consider a very dry topic. I'm sure there's a more definitive, French-Academy style compendium of word origins -- come to think of it, that's one of the secondary functions of the OED, isn't it? -- but this book is just fine for what it is. It was better when it was new, of course -- but, then, aren't all of us?

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