Friday, April 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #117: Around the World in 80 Cliches by Laura Lee

There is no frigate like a book. (I don't think that one's in here, but I could have missed it.) And one of the places I like to go in books is deep into the words themselves -- what they mean, who uses them, where they came from, what's different in different places.

So I was reading Laura Lee's Around the World in 80 Cliches [1] in the smallest room of the house for a few months recently, a page or three at a time. It's a great book for that, full of little snippets on this phrase or that one, organized into thematic chapters, so you could read it straight through if you wanted or dip into it as you have time.

There are indeed eighty chapters here, from "Beginnings" to "The End" -- though the ones in between don't follow any obvious structure. Each one starts off with some common English phrases, with a quick explanation of what they mean and sometimes what's known of their origins.  Most cliche origins  are lost to the depths of time; they're riverstones that have been handled so much they have no trace of anything original. And Lee is an honest writer: she's willing to note where the charming story that perfectly explains something has no evidence at all -- which is most of the time.

After the phrases that will be familiar to most English speakers, she throws in things from further afield -- similar idioms from other languages, quick quizzes about what a particular foreign phrase might mean, and longer sidebars on related topics. So each chapter is a few pages long, and made up of snippets -- this is a great book to read a bit of at a time.

I found Lee an interesting, fun writer with great insight into language and a refreshing honesty to cut through the usual bullshit about phrase origins. This is a silly little book, I guess, but it's useful and true, and I'm entirely in favor of things that give people more colorful ways to express themselves. (The saying I'm planning to start using more extensively myself is "Not my circus. Not my monkeys." which is apparently originally from the Polish.)

[1] Yes, that was also the subtitle of S.J. Perelman's Westward Ha! a long time ago. I don't know if Lee knew that, and I'd forgotten it myself until googling the Lee book just now -- even though I read the Perelman sometime in the '90s, during my Perelman phase. Note that this footnote is mostly a way to give me an excuse to type "Perelman" a few more times, because that's fun. Perelman Perelman Perelman.

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