Books about the English language with a dash of humour

Being a booklover and an avid reader, I occasionally enjoy reading and learning more about the English language. I’ve read some great books on the topic over the years and thought I’d share some of them with you below. Let’s start with two Australian books for those with a general interest in the origins and future direction of our English language.Aitch Factor by Susan Butler

The Aitch Factor, Adventures in Australian English by Susan Butler (Australian)
Susan Butler is the Editor at Macquarie Dictionary, having started there in 1970 as a Research Assistant. Butler regularly engages the community collecting new words, and providing advice on the correct spelling and usage of a variety of words. She’s even been consulted by politicians and has some funny and interesting anecdotes to share.

According to the blurb: “The Aitch Factor is the perfect book for word warriors, punctuation pedants and everyday lovers of language,” so you can’t go wrong.

Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History by Kate Burridge (Australian)
Kate Burridge is a Professor of Linguistics here in Australia, and covers many categories in her book, some of which include: slanguage on the move, shocking words, word origins, and pronunciation on the move. Burridge takes an amusing and insightful look at how the meaning of a word – as well as its pronunciation – can change over time, and I found it fascinating and educational.Gift of the Gob Kate Burridge

As in The Aitch Factor, Gift of the Gob comes with a dash of humour and looks at the language of the past and where the English language is taking us in the future.

Literally the Best Language Book Ever – Annoying Words and Abused Phrases You Should Never Use Again by Paul Yeager
Hopefully the title of Paul Yeager’s book captured your interest immediately, but if it didn’t, perhaps some of the chapter titles will hook you in: Illogical Words and Phrases, Excessively Trendy Words and Expressions, and Inarticulate Language.

Yeager writes about the cliches, buzz words and double speak that irritate him on a regular basis, and I was laughing out loud and wanting to share them with anyone who happened to be close by.

Amidst the humour, buzz words and misused phrases it’s hard not to learn something along the way. I realised I was guilty of committing one of his grammar errors early on, but was determined to press on, ever hopeful that would be the one and only offence.

Literally the Best Language Book Ever is a terrific read, and makes the perfect coffee table book.

Between You and Me by Mary NorrisOne book in this genre I haven’t read yet is the bestselling book from Lynne Truss called Eats, Shoots & Leaves – The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. According to the blurb: “in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, former editor Truss dares to say, in her delightfully urbane, witty, and very English way, that it is time to look at our commas and semicolons and see them as the wonderful and necessary things they are. This is a book for people who love punctuation and get upset when it is mishandled.”

This definitely sounds like a book for me, but I haven’t read it yet in the fear that it could be a little too serious. If you’ve read it, what did you think?

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris is another on my radar at the moment, has anyone read it? Are there any in this genre you’d like to recommend?

Spellbound

I am wholly obsessed with and terrified by spelling bees in equal measure. Obsessed in that I can’t get enough of watching or puzzling over them, turning the etymology, sounds, and letter combinations over and over in my head like David Bowie juggling the crystal ball in Labyrinth. Except with much less mesmerising skill and slightly less mullet-y hair.

I’m similarly terrified by the thought of getting up on stage and attempting to assemble and utter letters coherently in order to correctly spell something—experience has taught me that I’m an excellent on-paper speller, but a terrible, fumbling, stumbling one out loud.

I truly fear competing in on-stage spelling bees more than public speaking and death combined. But watching them, as long as I know I’m not going to be called upon to get up and participate, is another story altogether.

Spellbound the film (2002) and the annual ESPN coverage of the US national spelling bee brought many of us out of the spelling bee-loving closet and introduced many more to the competition’s magic. ESPN’s coverage, in particular, is stellar—they commentate the event as they would a gridiron or other action-packed sporting match. And who hasn’t uttered the now classic line ‘Can I have the etymology?’ after watching Spellbound?

The Emerging Writers Festival (EWF) was in town with its Digital Writers’ Conference last week. The team closed out the event with a Sunday night spelling bee at the funky, recently opened Jam Jar. Work commitments (and, if I’m honest, a healthy fear of being roped into participating) prevented me from getting down to watch some fellow writers, editors, and spelling afficionados compete, so I chatted to writer and editor Chad Parkhill to find out how it went.

How does a spelling bee work?

The spelling bee I was at—the one at the conclusion of the Brisbane Emerging Writers’ Festival—is really only loosely based on the American-style spelling bees we know from Spellbound and other documentaries/television shows.

Instead of being competitive, it’s a social thing: get a bunch of writers together in a room, add some booze and the challenge of spelling words, and have some fun. Having said that, there was one chap there who had his own spelling bee alias—I’m positive that his real name wasn’t Obadiah—and he seemed to take the whole thing rather seriously.

I can only spell something when I write it down. Is that peculiar to me or if not, how do you manage to overcome that to spell aloud?

That’s not at all peculiar! I noticed lots of the competitors and audience members spelling out the words with their fingers on tabletops and the surface of their jeans in an attempt to get it right. In order to spell aloud, I try to visualise the word printed on a piece of paper, and simply read it out from there.

Have you watched Spellbound/the annual ESPN spelling bee? If so, any pointers you picked up? Did someone ask for the etymology (in an American accent)?

Unfortunately, I haven’t watched Spellbound, but I think that’s because I have a pathological fear of watching small children being intense and dorky. It takes me back to my own days of being an intense and dorky child.

Nobody asked for the etymology of words, but many did ask for words to be used in sentences—mostly for comic effect. (Krissy Kneen, who has just published a book of literary pornography, Triptych, was called upon to use the word ‘tumescent’ in a sentence.)

One important difference between the EWF spelling bee and the American-style spelling bees is that you’re not required to start by saying the word, then spell it, then say it again—you just have to spell it. This means you don’t get a chance to correct yourself if you’ve reached the end of the word and you know you’ve stuffed it up.

Can you remember any of the words you were asked to spell (or that others were)?

My own words were ‘chameleon’, ‘vacillate’, ‘finagle’, ‘gauche’, ‘lymphatic’, and ‘plagiarise’, among others. In general, there were lots of words that everyone knows, but hardly anyone can spell—I think ‘rhythm’ is the best example of this kind of word. There were also lots of ‘trick’ words such as ‘inoculate,’ which nearly everyone thinks has two ‘n’s. (I know I would have been stumped by that one!)

Finally, there were also lots of loan words, mostly from French and German, such as ‘ennui’, ‘cliché’, and ‘doppelgänger’. I was a little disappointed that competitors weren’t asked to place the correct diacritical marks in those words—that would have made things more challenging!

What was the word that stumped you?

‘Fahrenheit’, of all things. I am actually capable of spelling it, but I’d had one too many beers—gone beyond ‘the zone’, as pool players might say—and completely forgot to say the second ‘h’. I guess I should have started by spelling it out on my jeans with a finger!

Can you remember the word that won?

The winning word was ‘synecdoche’, which the winning competitor spelled with ease. It’s supposed to be a stumper, but I think Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York may have had something to do with its popularisation.

Any notable words/moments worth mentioning?

The bee included ‘caesura’, which I thought was a particularly tough one. Oh, and ‘Fahrenheit’. Curse you, Fahrenheit! Your scale sucks, anyway.

Which dictionary did they use (e.g. Macquarie)? Did anyone try to sneak through with American spellings?

The dictionary was, I believe, the Macquarie. Nobody tried to use American spellings, cleaving to -ise rather than -ize.

Were there any crash study sessions/methods applied?

Certainly not on my part! I was actually a last-minute ring-in—I was there simply to catch up with a friend, but got roped in by the festival organisers. I’m glad they asked.

Any heckling? Controversy? Googling of spellings and definitions?

No, everyone was pretty well-behaved.

Hmm, methinks [read: Fi thinks] that’s very civilised!

Chad Parkhill, who was brave enough to compete, writes for Rave Magazine and The Lifted Brow.

Review: iBooks on the iPad

Click on any of the pictures for a closer look

So, I’ve had my iPad for a couple of weeks now, and it’s high time to review Apple’s answer to the ebook question. I’m not going to review the entire iPad – unlike the Kindle, the it’s not a dedicated reading device, and there are plenty of other options for reading books, newspapers, magazines and blogs on it.

The iBooks app does not come pre-loaded on the iPad when you buy it, a choice by Apple that has more to do with their relationships with international publishers than it does with their determination to turn the iPad into a reading device. Unlike Amazon, Apple do not want its users to associate the iBooks app with no books on its bookstore.

Having said that, we don’t yet have much of an idea how much content will be available on the Australian version of the iBookstore (can I point out right now that I’m already getting sick of typing lowercase ‘I’s in front of every bloody proper noun in the Apple vocabulary?). When it launches in Australia on 7 June, the iBooks app will be available from the App Store, but we don’t yet have any idea what the range will be like. The US iBookstore, for what it’s worth, seems well stocked enough (by all reports, somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 titles). It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 400,000 available on the Amazon Kindle store, at the moment, but that’s likely as much to do with how long it has been available as anything else.

So what’s it like reading on this thing? Absolutely fine. Unlike the Kindle, the iPad uses an LCD screen, a source of much consternation for ebook nerds. I’ve heard comments that the backlit screen makes it ‘useless’ as an ereader. But this has not been my experience at all. For those of us who already spend a proportion of our days reading backlit screens on computers, the iPad is no worse and arguably a lot better than this. You can easily set the brightness levels to suit the ambient light, and the advantages of the backlit screen are obvious – it can show colour, embedded video and the refresh rate (how quickly each page turns and illustrations are shown) is light years ahead of the Kindle. You can also almost instantaneously flip the orientation of the book between a double-page spread and a single larger page by just turning the device as it suits. There are disadvantages as well, of course. The screen is not a patch on the Kindle for reading in direct light – you can forget bringing it to the beach with you (though I’ve never been inclined to bring my Kindle to the beach anyway). The ten-hour battery life is also nowhere near the Kindle’s ten days – though this is mitigated by the fact that the iPad can and would be used for more than just reading books.

For anyone used to reading ebooks, the iBooks app has most of the standard ereader features. You can look up words in the dictionary (I really like the implementation of the dictionary – it pops up in a small window overlaying the text so you can quickly check without having to leave the page), you can also search the book and bookmark it. For some reason iBooks does not have any annotation capability, though this may be something addressed in a future update.

One thing that really bugs me about iBooks, however, is the way you load books. If you buy books exclusively from the iBookstore, you can do it from anywhere and start reading instantly. However, if you want to load up your own DRM-free, out-of-copyright books you might have downloaded from somewhere like Gutenberg.org, then the only way to add books to the app is to plug it into iTunes, add it to the library and sync the iPad. For a device that sells itself as internet connected and as a netbook replacement, this feels like a massive (and unnecessary) step backwards.

Ultimately, the iBooks app is a very strong contender in the realm of ebook readers. However, the comparative feature set of this single app is not going to be what sets it apart. That’s because the iPad is not just iBooks. For readers who are hooked on the e-ink experience, I’d say that there’s no huge advantage to buying an iPad. Stick with your Kindle, your Eco Reader or your Sony. For people who are curious about e-reading, but can’t decide whether to an ereader is a waste of money – then an iPad is for you. It’s more expensive, but it does far more than an ordinary ereader. It is also much more likely to be future proof – whether it’s Amazon, Apple or Google books you’re after, it’s very likely that they will all be able to be read on an iPad long into the future.