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?

Wording Up

Word UpAs a Gen Y myself, I never quite understood adults’ alternating bemusement and frustration at our constantly evolving language use. I may have even rolled my eyes once or twice during my awkward teenage years when, in an attempt to show they were down with the lingo and could totally relate to me on my terms, my parents threw the term ‘dude’ into a sentence when ‘dude’ was, like, so passé.

But I’m fast entering my parents’ world of combined and constant bemusement and puzzlement as I ‘grow up’. The generations behind me are now bandying around terms in contexts that I truly don’t understand. That’s even occurring within my own generation, with a friend and fellow Gen Y recently dating another Gen Y who was about four years younger.

That’s not an entirely giant age difference, you wouldn’t think. But clearly something’s happened to language and language use in those four years with my worldly, witty friend completely unable to decipher his younger girlfriend’s text messages.

He handed the phone over to me in exasperation one night and asked me if I could make out what she was trying to tell him. I knew it was English, but it was—without exaggeration—utterly foreign and utterly unintelligible.

I think he ended up calling her—something our parents used to do to us and that we used to be annoyed by, thinking ‘I already told you this in the text message’. Meanwhile I debated internally whether I was getting old or whether technology and language were evolving so fast that even a year or four’s birth difference could result in writing and speaking so completely differently.

The Power of GoodUnsurprisingly, and without borrowing clichés about communication breakdown, my friend’s relationship didn’t work out. But what’s remained with me has been an ongoing fascination with language origins and evolution.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle and his co-writer Emily Wolfinger have tackled just this in their latest book, Word Up. The book’s an updated and expanded version of a guide McCrindle wrote a few years back on how to communicate with Gen Ys—something that proved popular and well-thumbed and regularly requested.

I’m impressed by the book, both as a writer and as a Gen Y. It’s not flashy in terms of expensive, glossy, colour images, but it’s aesthetically pleasing, well laid out, and strong on communication design. Themes and chapters are organised logically, and tables are used to good effect to break down, group, compare, and communicate key concepts.

For example, two of the first tables we encounter outline each generation’s key information and influences, which include the prime ministers, celebrities, historical figures, and scientific breakthroughs to which they’d have been exposed.

Another table outlines newly formed words based on celebrity couplings, such as ‘Brangelina’, ‘TomKat’, or ‘Bennifer’, while yet another provides explanations of text- or chat-room acronyms/initialisms.

Thankfully, though, this book examines different generations’ lingo without making it seem twee and, well, a bit kids-these-days patronising. Instead it meshes quantitative and qualitative research with concise, accessible language, and a sense of humour. It also shows that, far from being parrots of Americanisms, we Australians pick and choose the terms we wish to adopt.

There are sections that include the most memorable jingles (think ‘Happy Little Vegemite’, ‘Louie the Fly’, and ‘My Dad Picks the Fruit’) and one-liners (think ‘Tell him he’s dreamin’’ and ‘That’s not a knife, this is a knife’), which are fantastic memory-triggering trivia and that I bet, having just been reminded of them, are still playing out in your head.

The sections that will perhaps prove most useful, though, will be the Glossary and Youth Language Lexicon at the back, which include such terms as:

  • ‘book’—one of the first mobile phone autocorrect amusements and mishaps
  • ‘chillax’—a term that grates me no end and clearly grates others as it hasn’t 100% taken off
  • ‘Harvey Norman’ and ‘whitebread’—both of which are reportedly mainstream and bland
  • ‘totes’—totally (and yes, I totes used this one regularly myself)
  • ‘taxed’ and ‘ninja’d’—both AKA to steal.

I don’t get ‘swag’, something that I’ve encountered in recent times. I don’t think I ever will. But I do get that language is rapidly changing and that there are some fascinating terms out there (like ‘fruit ninja’ and ‘hulked out’, which I heard in common usage just today), some of which I am determined to adopt. Word Up is available now.