Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Totally Weird and Wonderful Words edited by Erin McKean

There are different kinds of people in the world. We've all heard of a "people person" or an "animal person," and we could extend that schema to include people who prefer complicated machinery (hardware and/or software), to those who only care about the appropriate gender for their amors, and to the people who care most about ideas.

Me, I'm a word person. I think we're one of the smaller of those tribes, but my first career was in book publishing, an entire industry built by and for word people, so I may just be indulging in the old "it is a proud and lonely thing to be like me, one of The Chosen People." There may be vast numbers of us. If you're reading this, you're probably among them.

(And, yes, it's a reductive idea and no person is actually just one of those things. I'm talking about tendencies and preferences here, obviously. Stop being so literal, bud.)

Totally Weird and Wonderful Words is a book for us. More than that: it's one of the best books for us -- for those of us who read and prefer the English language, at least. Erin McKean, one of the world's premier word-persons -- editor-in-chief of the Oxford American Dictionary Program and editor of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly -- compiled two collections of interesting and quirky words (2002's Weird and Wonderful Words and the following year's More Weird and Wonderful Words), which this 2006 book combines and integrates.

I won't claim that it has all of the weird and wonderful words in the English language; that would be patently false. But it does include several hundred of them, organized and explained by an expert.

McKean even explains what she means by "weird" and "wonderful" up front, in the new introduction to this compilation that sits alongside the original introductions for the individual books. (Scholarly publishers are the best for making sure to include every last possible bit of metatextual apparatus, and I love them for it.) A word is weird either orthographically -- because it has odd combinations of letters unusual in English -- or because it describes a weird idea or thing. Even better, a word can be weird in both ways. And a word is wonderful because it means something interesting, describing in one quirky word a feeling or thing that otherwise needs several full sentences, or that was difficult to explain at all -- it's wonderful because it evokes wonder, at the thing it depicts or that it exists at all.

I read this book back a ways -- it was my bathroom reading last autumn, and I finished it in early November -- so the specific words I was going to call out in this post have all fled my brain since then. But I can tell you I found something fun and exciting on every page: both the old favorites that I use myself and great quirky little-known words that I was previously unfamiliar with.

Many books of words are written for people who are only kind-of word people; they're half-hearted and hope to bring in the fabled (and mostly mythical) general audience. McKean has no time for that nonsense. Her book is filled entirely with the kinds of words she means, and nothing else -- every single one is both weird and wonderful. Totally Weird and Wonderful Words is for people who collect words, the ones who actually do have favorite words (among mine are antidisestablishmentarianism and preantepenultimate, for obvious silliness-of-prefix reasons), and those who actually prefer to read books of words for pleasure.

If that's you, and you haven't seen this book before, you're in for a treat.

Note: The first book had a cover and internal illustrations by Roz Chast. The second had a cover and internal illustrations by Danny Shanahan. This combined edition has the Chast cover and all of the internal illos from both -- unless you are a massive fan of Shanahan covers, it's clearly the preferred package.

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