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Patricia T. O’Conner & Stewart Kellerman – Origins of the Specious

April 16, 2012

37. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O’Conner & Stewart Kellerman (2009)

Length: 268 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 31 March 2012
Finished: 02 April 2012

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? Recommended to me by one of my committee members, although I can’t remember what we were discussing at the time. I suspect it was either the plurality of “data”, or we were lamenting the lack of a good third-person gender neutral personal pronoun.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 31 March 2012.

It’s a-okay to
end your sentences in a
preposition at.

Summary: Origins of the Specious is about half grammar guide and half etymological study, and it does exactly what the subtitle suggests: takes a look at some of the myths and misconceptions about the English language, and decides which ones can be ignored, and which are here to stay. There are sections on hard-and-fast grammar rules that aren’t actually, swear words, phrases and expressions that are commonly confused, whether some un-PC words actually have un-PC origins, what really counts as the Queen’s English anyways, the way pseudo-Latin and pseudo-French have crept into the language, etc. Each chapter is broken up into short mini-essays (a few paragraphs, typically), with the word or phrase under discussion as the heading.

Review: Etymology fascinates me, and I’m always interested in being a better and more grammatical writer, so I’m predisposed to find books like this interesting. I did pick up a lot of interesting trivia from this book; for example, I’d bet that most people lamenting the fact that having to use “he” as a generic third-person pronoun is sexist aren’t aware that “they” used to be a perfectly acceptable choice, and the “he” rule was started by a woman. Or that any etymology that involves an acronym (“For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or “Fornication Under Consent of the King”) but dates prior to the 1960s or so is probably wrong. Or that the first use of “Xmas” was in 1551, which well predates the supposed War on Christmas. There’s also an extensive notes section, and what’s better, an index, for looking up specific points to support your side when arguing about grammar on the internet. Also, since it’s mostly trivia, I didn’t find myself getting hyper-paranoid about the correctness of my own writing, like I did after Eats, Shoots, and Leaves or Lapsing Into a Comma.

My biggest issue with this book was that in each relevant section, O’Conner and Kellerman provide a “ruling” on acceptable usage, and that after a while, the reasons behind these rulings started to seem inconsistent. For example, they point out that it’s okay to boldly split infinitives, because Shakespeare and his ilk did so, but then later in the book say that despite such greats of the English language using “niggardly” to mean “cowardly”, that’s probably not okay today. And common usage has changed “decimate” enough that it now means “cause great loss of life” rather than “execute one tenth of”, but despite common usage, they’re not willing to give up on the literal meaning of “literally”. Those are all examples that I agree with (with the possible exception of “decimate”), but similar varying logic was used in a number of cases that I thought were more borderline. They do point out that these are just their opinions, and that English is an evolving language in which the majority rules… but since that’s the case, it makes this book, and all similar ones, feel somewhat inconsequential. If the majority rules, what’s the point of having a rulebook? 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It’s not broad enough to be of use as a general grammar guide, but it should be of interest to word nerds as a source of fun trivia.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

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First Line: My family was the first on our block to get a television set – a mahogany Philco console with rabbit ears protruding at odd angles from somewhere in the back.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2012 7:49 pm

    I know it doesn’t matter to have “decimate” used in the “remove one tenth” sense, but I always get a kick out of it when it happens. Doctor Who has an episode where the villain uses “decimate” in its literal sense, and I love it.

    • April 18, 2012 5:50 pm

      Jenny – I don’t know that I caught that in Doctor Who – which episode? But I do get a kick when it’s used properly, like the speaker and I are in a secret little club that knows better. (Well, the speaker, me, and thousands of Romans; whatever.)

  2. buriedinprint permalink
    April 16, 2012 9:06 pm

    I understand exactly what you mean about the hyper-paranoia! This sounds like a lot of fun though; I’ll keep an eye out for it!

    • April 18, 2012 5:51 pm

      BiP – O’Conner’s book Woe is I seems to be a lot more common/popular, but this one is definitely cute, and interesting to boot!

  3. April 22, 2012 2:07 pm

    Ooh, this sounds like it’s right up my nerdy alley. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • April 24, 2012 2:04 pm

      Emily – You’re welcome! It’s nice having other nerds to share your alleys. :)

      • April 25, 2012 8:59 pm

        Nerd Alley – someone really needs to name a street that!

  4. May 8, 2012 10:47 am

    This does sound fun.

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