New Books on Language Bring Holiday Cheer

By Rob Kyff

November 21, 2018 3 min read

There's no place like tome for the holidays. These new books will delight the word-lovers on your shopping list — and you as well.

Did you know that "acronym" refers only to abbreviations pronounced as words ("NASA"), while those pronounced as letters ("UFO") are called "initialisms"? Veteran word master Charles Harrington Elster explains the subtle differences between words like these in "How to Tell Fate From Destiny: And Other Skillful Word Distinctions" (Houghton Mifflin, $15.99). From classic confusions ("affect" vs. "effect") to subtle selections ("luxuriant" vs. "luxurious") to hair-raising hairsplitters ("fortuitous" vs. "fortunate"), he'll help you pick the winner.

Speaking of winning, how do you win someone over to your point of view? Act like a feline, says Jay Heinrichs in his clever and instructive "How To Argue With a Cat: A Human's Guide to the Art of Persuasion" (Rodale Press, $14.99). You can purr (flatter your target), prowl (gather information), paw (use hand gestures) and pounce (surprise your quarry). And remember that a quiet meow is often more effective than a howl.

A cat can also "have nine lives," "get your tongue" and even be "killed by curiosity." Mark Abley explores the origins, uses and abuses of idioms like these in his delightful "Watch Your Tongue: What Our Everyday Sayings and Idioms Figuratively Mean" (Simon and Schuster Canada, $19.99). You'll learn, for instance, that the saying "Silence is golden" is a shortened version of "Speech is silver, but silence is golden," and that "speak with a forked tongue" originated not among Native Americans but in British literature of the 1600s.

And for terms that did begin in America, turn to Rosemarie Ostler's exhilarating "Splendiferous Speech: How Early Americans Pioneered Their Own Brand of English" (Chicago Review Press, $17.99). You'll learn that "caucus" derives from the Algonquian "caw-cawwassoughes" (a governing council of elders), that American explorers invented a new meaning for "hole" (a low-lying, grassy area, as in "Jackson Hole") and that the verbs "belittle," "stump" and "demoralize" were coined by Thomas Jefferson, Davy Crockett and Noah Webster, respectively. As the coonskin cap on the book's cover suggests, Ostler especially savors the colorful language of the frontier, e.g., "backtrack," "a-hunting," "elbow grease," "bamboozle," "passel," "play possum."

May your holiday season be splendiferous!

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 [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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