Put Some 'Clause' in Your Santa!

Rob Kyff on

Your holidays will be jolly days if you give -- or get -- one of these nifty new books about language.

The witty wordsmith Richard Lederer offers a double treat with two simultaneously published books. In "A Pleasury of Word Origins," you'll learn that "the whole nine yards," once thought to have originated with machine-gun ammo belts or fully loaded concrete trucks, first appeared with the meaning "the works" in an Indiana newspaper in 1855, well before machine guns or trucks were invented. In Lederer's companion book "So That's What It Means!" you'll discover that the drinking toast "Here's mud in your eye" was originally aimed at farmers: "May your soil be so soft and moist that it will spatter your face as you plow it."

Who said or wrote the following? "I want to be in the room where it happens." "You should have put a ring on it." "Don't retreat; reload." "When they go low, we go high." These words from Lin Manuel Miranda, Beyonce, Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama, respectively, are among the latest entries in the enlarged and updated edition of "The New Yale Book of Quotations," edited by Fred Shapiro. This compendium, which brims with more than 12,000 memorable utterances arranged alphabetically by author, includes a keyword index and subsections devoted to genres such as advertising slogans, nursery rhymes and TV-show catchphrases.

In Amanda Montell's "Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism," we learn how cults, much like advertisers and political parties, use linguistic Kool-Aid -- carefully concocted mantras, mottos and code words to recruit and control their followers. A woman named Tasha tells Montell she was lured to The Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization, a.k.a. "3HO," by the buzz phrases "open heart," "science of the mind," and "higher vibration," and was overjoyed when she was given her new name, "Daya."

Why don't "sew" and "new" rhyme? How did "literally" come to mean "figuratively"? What's the deal with "colonel"? In "Highly Irregular," linguist Arika Okrent answers scores of intriguing questions like these in an entertaining romp through the inconsistencies, quirks and paradoxes of English. She balances the fun with savvy scholarship, explaining how ancient linguistic influencers, including Greeks, Vikings and Normans, as well as fussy British pedants, planted these booby traps in our language.


Happy holidays -- and wordy days -- to all!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on 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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