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Book Review: The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language by David Crystal

STORY OF BE by David Crystal

(Oxford University Press, 2017)

By Christine Albert

Some words are so familiar that it feels as though we instinctively know what they mean. And when we don’t, we use a dictionary to read its definition and determine how it can be placed alongside other words to form cohesive narratives. But how often do we think about the history behind the word itself, the changes it’s gone through and the nuances it provides the English language and the topics being discussed?

In The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language, David Crystal examines the verb to be, highlighting the meanings created and used throughout its long history. A linguist, editor, and prolific writer, Crystal is well-known for his research in English language and has published over 100 books and almost 500 articles on topics such as religious language, Internet language, and clinical linguistics. Each chapter of The Story of Be is dedicated to a specific function of the verb, ranging from the more philosophical (“existential be”) to the scatological (“lavatorial be”). In the latter chapter, for instance, Crystal muses on the origins of the saying “Have you been?” to denote using the washroom, delving into past literature to see when this phrasing began. Alongside these explanations are numerous examples from a variety of sources, including literary, pop culture, religious, and technological. And sprinkled throughout the book are text boxes that focus on the history of the word’s various tenses, showing their development from Old English to modern times and their regional uses. (more…)

Wordplay: Drawing a blank

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

I’m drawing a blank.

Here it is:

 

 

Did you like it? I hope you didn’t blink and miss it.

Do you object that there’s nothing to be seen? You should avoid such blanket statements. It may look like a blanket of snow, but consider that a blanket of snow is not nothing, but a version of everything. It is made of millions of snowflakes, a compendium of hexagonal geometries; each one is its own crystalline shape, reflecting back all the wavelengths of light that hit it. White is not an absence of colour, after all; it is a surfeit of colours, too many to choose from, all of them all at once.

And that is what blank is: white. French, blanc. Every blank thing comes from this original whiteness, mistaken for emptiness. Let there be white. A blanket? Originally fabric made from loose undyed wool. Even blink is related: the common source is a root meaning “shine.” (more…)

Wordplay: The ides of March would be where?

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

Beware the ides of March!

Beware the ides of every other month, too. And the nones. And the calends. Actually, beware Roman calendars pretty much altogether. But beware the ides of March especially.

We generally think of ides as being a March thing, since Julius Caesar was stabbed on that day. But every month in the Roman calendar was marked by three days: calends, nones, ides. All the other days were counted in relation to them. But how they were counted serves as a reminder that things we take for granted as plain and obvious are actually not inevitable and have been done differently in other places and times.

The Roman calendar was originally a lunar calendar. A month started with the new moon. That was the calends (Latin kalendae), which appears to trace back to calare (“proclaim”). About a week later would be the half moon. That became the nones (Latin nonae), so called because it was the ninth day before the ides—which is to say, it was eight days before the ides. (Confused? We’ll get to that.) The third day of note was the full moon, which was the ides (Latin idus, from some Etruscan word). And then…apparently nothing of note between full and new moon. (more…)

Wordplay: Deck, don, and troll your way through Christmas

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

wordplay-logoThere are some things that seem to happen only at Christmas. For instance, there’s someone who wanders around all over the place and does something on your roof.

Well, OK, that’s more in the league of things that are spoken of (or sung of) as happening at Christmas. It’s the time of year when we sing about how up on the rooftop reindeer pause and out jumps good old Santa Claus. And also about decking the halls with boughs of holly.

Ah, yes, that song—it has three great Christmas-only verbs in its first verse:

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la, la la la la.

’Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la . . . et cetera.

Don we now our gay apparel, fa la la, la la la, hmm. . . .

Troll the ancient yuletide carol, fa la la. . . . Say, what do you mean by troll?

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Wordplay: None of these people are right

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

wordplay-logo

You have probably encountered, every now and then, people who will aver that none can take only a singular conjugation, never a plural: never none are, always none is.

The argument they present is based on the “it’s obvious” principle so beloved of amateur grammarians. This is the principle by which, for instance, many people will insist that anyways is bad English: “Any takes a singular, so it has to be way, not ways. It’s obvious.” Whenever someone presents an analysis whereby a common usage is “obviously” wrong, you can assume they’re misanalyzing—in the preceding example, for instance, the s is not a plural but an old genitive, originally there to make the word mean “of or by any way.”

The “it’s obvious” argument that is applied to none is as follows: “None comes from no one (or not one). One is singular. So none must be singular. It’s obvious.”
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