Language Books for the Summer Hammock

Rob Kyff on

"Summer made her light escape / Into the Beautiful," wrote Emily Dickinson. Make your own light escape this summer with one of these new books about language.

Renowned linguist John McWhorter explores the power and peculiarity of profanity in "Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever." These no-nos, he explains, are "ways of being human." And human they are, expressing our most visceral emotions, from anger to disdain to joy. Citing sources from "King Lear" to Norman Lear, McWhorter brings a comic touch to the evolution and surprising frequency of cursing. Englishmen swore so much that Joan of Arc called them "goddams."

Is it ever acceptable for an author to write in the voice of someone of another race? Paisley Rekdal, a writing professor and the poet laureate of Utah, poses that question in "Appropriate: A Provocation." Among the cases she examines is Jeanine Cummins' recent novel "American Dirt," which is a Mexican immigrant narrative written by a white woman. Rekdal's advice is thoughtful and nuanced. "If you approach appropriation with any ethical seriousness," she writes, "you will have to think deeply about aesthetics, history and difference."

Great cities, the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote, "can be seen as a construction of words as much as stone." Joshua Jelly-Schapiro excavates these linguistic cobblestones in "Names of New York" to reveal the city's fascinating stories through its place names. "Rockaway" comes from the Munsee Indian word "leekuwahkuy" (sandy place); "Brooklyn" (Dutch for "broken land") ranked 21 among top girl names in 2011; Astoria, Queens, is named for John Jacob Astor; a well-known downtown street acquired its name when a gang leader pulled up a Mulberry tree to club rival toughs from the Plug Uglies.


What do these words have in common: gerrymander, gobbledygook and workaholic? They're all invented words that now perch prominently in our lexicon. But, as Ralph Keyes points out in his intriguing saga "The Hidden History of Coined Words," the process of introducing a new word that enters common parlance is complicated and unpredictable. Some inadvertent neologisms thrive, e.g., boondoggle, quark and wardrobe malfunction, but many cleverly concocted coinages die, e.g., frugalista, petropolitics and youthquake. Emily Dickinson hinted at this paradox when she wrote, "A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day."


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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