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The premise of Words on the Move by John McWhorter is that the meaning of words is always changing. He proves that assertion with 231 pages of weird examples, all of which are common words probably known to you but which have peculiar histories. Lots of words we use daily are fragments of common words of bygone eras that either got glommed together or ripped apart or pronounced differently and thus became new words with new meanings.

The giant Oxford English Dictionary which I have on my shelf isn’t a resource of last resort in an argument for defining what a word means, but a moving snapshot in a fast flowing stream of evolving meanings.

This book is similar to doing a crossword puzzle in that you come out of the experience knowing more about words and their linkages to ideas you didn’t have before you started. It probably won’t make much difference to your daily life, but on the other hand, it was an enjoyable experience. If you have pretensions of being an author, or poet, or wordsmith of any kind this is a must-read book, because it will give you a deeper appreciation of our English language, and of every other language too. They are all tools for communication and as every communication is unique so is every usage of a word unique in its meaning. That process feeds back upon itself and languages change incrementally with every usage of a word.

In my years back at Berkeley I had friends who had higher degrees from top Universities in English, Linguistics, Literature, Information Science and yet I can’t remember a single instance of one of those people correcting my speech patterns … except in comedy. Here in Bend, not a home of advanced scholarship, I have been accused of hanging a participle or mispronouncing a word. Those folks back in Berkeley were listening to the ideas, not the word usage. Here, during a conversation, some people will routinely whip out their online devices and read out the definitions of words as if that will solve some delicate point of a conversation. Rewording a statement, with a personal definition of what was meant, isn’t enough for them and the online definition is supposedly telling me what I thought and meant.

Words on the Move will guide you through the Babel of our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

 

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