Take Our Word For It
Feb 24, 2003 22:54 PST
Long time no see! What, that's OUR fault? Well, as you may recall,
Melanie's been away on an extended business trip, but that trip is about
to END, so she and Mike will soon be back to publishing TOWFI regularly
again. Meantime, Mike has prepared the following review to tide you
Dog Days and Dandelions by Martha Barnette. Hardcover: 256 pages,
biblio.; St. Martin's Press. List price $24.95 or $17.47 from our Amazon
portal (http://www.takeourword.com/bookStore.html ).
Here at Towfi Towers we receive quite a few books on word origins, more
than a few of which have been known to provoke a series of pedantic
noises ranging from "Tsk, tsk!" to "Pshaw!" In extreme cases these
sounds of disgruntlement ("disgrunts"?) are followed by the peculiar
rustling "whump!" which characterizes the collision of a book with my
What a joy, therefore, to discover that Martha Barnette has written a
book which will delight both the etymologist and general reader alike.
Reading through it, not only did I find myself mentally commending Ms.
Barnette's succinct accuracy, but I found myself saying "Oh, yes, I'd
forgotten that" on page after page and "Hey, I didn't know that one!"
more often than I'd like to admit. Who would have guessed, for example,
that panache comes from the French for "a plume of feathers" or that at
the root of the word pavilion lies in the Latin for "butterfly".
Do you know what an oviary is? Or a cockalorum? Ever wondered how to
formicate? Well, an oviary is a "flock of sheep", a cockalorum is a
"swaggering braggart" and formication is "the sensation that ants are
crawling over (or under) one's skin".
So many words have become separated from their literal meanings that it
comes as a shock when we are reminded. Consider the following: "The fire
brigade rescued John's kite with a crane and his new hobby ended the
moment he got the bill." Can you find the words which are derived from
birds? No, bill is not one of them but kite, hobby, and crane are. These
words are simply the names of species of birds which have been applied
to other objects. Speaking of cranes, this long-legged wader is also to
be found hiding in geranium and pedigree.
Gentle reader, I presume that you already have a love for words and
their odd, convoluted histories or you wouldn't be reading this review.
I entreat you to rush out and get this book. Trust me, you won't regret
it. However, Dog Days and Dandelions also happens to be the best
introduction to etymology I have seen in a long time and, as you may
wish to convert your loved ones to this recondite passion, I recommend
buying several extra copies.
- Mike (and Melanie from afar)