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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…)

The Nitpicker’s Nook: November edition

The Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, blog posts, and podcasts. If you read or hear something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion to [email protected].

Nitpickers Nook Image by Deven Knill

By Carol Harrison

Need a five-minute break from hacking and chopping and cursing the English language? Open Culture features a short lesson by Yale linguistics professor Claire Bowern on the roots of English. A sweet, simple, and smart TED Talk, cheekily animated by Patrick Smith.

Speaking of roots, The Independent’s Natasha Salmon reports on how the French language is facing a backlash on gender-neutral words.

I’m a big fan of Words to that Effect, “a literary podcast of the intriguing, the curious, and the unexplored” hosted by Conor Reid from Dublin, Ireland. In episode 9, “Imaginary Countries and the Ruritanian Romance,” Conor talks about making up place names. Lovely stuff!

And for those days when you’ve run so low on dilithium crystals that your flux capacitor just goes kablooey, consider listening to “Technobabble” on Imaginary Words. In this episode, scientists and screenwriters team up to get the words right. It’s the droid you’re looking for.

Carol Harrison is editor-in-chief of BoldFace and quality assurance specialist at CPA Canada. When she isn’t focusing on words, she’s focusing her Nikon D3200.

This article was copy edited by Afara Kimkeran.

The Nitpicker’s Nook: early October edition

The Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, and blog posts. If you read something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion to [email protected].

Nitpickers Nook Image by Deven Knill
By Carol Harrison

Thanks to Sara Scharf for her contributions and to Deven Knill for the lovely new banner image!

 

Blimey! The Guardian’s Mona Chalabi reports that data shows the Americanization of English is rising.

“Friends with benefits” and other idioms that may not translate: or that time The Guardian’s Mona Chalabi made her mom guess the meanings of English expressions.

Because, at the end of the day, the bottom line is that idioms can be annoying: So say The Globe and Mail readers.

On people, language, and respect: Alex Kapitan writes about person-centred language in the blog The Radical Copyeditor. 

It is my great honour to introduce a new honorific: Merriam-Webster on Mx.

So, does this mean my computer will swear back? In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance writes about how AI has created its own language.

Carol Harrison is editor-in-chief of BoldFace and quality assurance specialist at FRAS Canada. When she isn’t focusing on words, she’s focusing her Nikon D3200. 

This article was copy edited by Ellen Fleischer.

Webinar: A linguist’s guide to grammar

What you learned in English class will help you with syntax about as much as what you learned in driving lessons will help you with mechanics—you get by fine until one day you find yourself stopped in the middle of a sentence with smoke coming out from under the hood. In this webinar, we’re going to learn how to take apart sentences the way a mechanic takes apart an engine.

The key learning objectives of this webinar are to

  • diagram sentences the way linguists do—accurately and elegantly,
  • learn about the building blocks of syntax,
  • clear up some common misunderstandings about verbs, nouns, and pronouns, and
  • dismantle and fix some of the most common mistakes people make when trying to apply “proper grammar.”

Date: Thursday, April 27
Time: 2 p.m., EDT / 11 a.m., PDT
Length: 1.5 hours
Language: English
Member price: $56.25
Non-Member price: $75

Register HERE

james_harbeck
James Harbeck is a linguist, editor, and well-known writer and speaker on language. His articles appear regularly on websites such as TheWeek.com and BBC.com as well as on his own blog, Sesquiotica.

Nitpicker’s Nook: March “it’s almost spring” edition

The Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, and blog posts. If you read something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion to [email protected]

The Nitpicker's Nook, Carol Harrison

Irish editor and “swivel-chair linguist” Stan Carey blogs about how usage snuck/sneaked into The Simpsons.

Writer and teacher John Kelly dishes up some fresh hell on Strong Language. (This blog contains language may not be suitable for some readers).

CBC Ideas host Paul Kennedy interviews Canadian archaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger about some of the world’s oldest symbols.

An un-comic take on Comic Sans. See also Christine Albert’s post, “Promoting Accessibility in Editorial Businesses,” and Ambrose Li’s article, “Web Accessibility: An Editor’s Guide.”

Ryan DeCaire, an assistant linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, seeks to revive the Mohawk language.

Do you know that author who uses the same old, tired word or phrase over and over repeatedly with no end? Here are the famous writers’ favourite words. Got your sharpened red pencil ready?

Ooh, this is fun! How IKEA names its products!

Carol Harrison is editor-in-chief of BoldFace and freelance editor and writer at Muse Ink. When she isn’t focusing on words, she’s focusing her Nikon D3200.

This article was copy edited by Olga Sushinsky.

The Nitpicker’s Nook: February edition

The Nitpicker's Nook, Carol Harrison

The Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, and blog posts. If you read something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion to [email protected]

By Carol Harrison

Does the current state of world affairs leave you without words? Thankfully Planet Word, the soon-to-be museum of linguistics in Washington, DC, won’t be. And did you know there is also a National Museum of Mathematics in New York? For me, both celebrate languages.

On January 14, Zhou Youguang died at 111 years old. If you’ve learned to read and write Mandarin using Hanyu Pinyin, you have him to thank.

Pardon me while I geek out. I can’t say enough good things about the movie Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Finally, a science-fiction film that’s about communicating with aliens, not shooting them up! If you’ve watched the trailer, you’ve seen a sample of how the language looks. Wired’s Margaret Rhodes talks to the people who created the alphabet. Oh, and a shout-out to Jessica Coon, an associate professor of linguistics at McGill University and Canada Research Chair in Syntax and Indigenous Languages, who consulted on the film! Now I’m off to find Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “Story of Your Life” on which all this is based.

Back down to earth, or perhaps flying a few feet above the ground, the BBC’s Andrew Evans finds out how falconry sank its talons into the English language.

Have current events got you riled? Do you plan to join a march? Want your placard to pack extra punch? Let linguist Daniel Midgley help.

Carol Harrison is editor-in-chief of BoldFace and freelance editor and writer at Muse Ink. When she isn’t focusing on words, she’s focusing her Nikon D3200.

This article was copy edited by Ambrose Li.

The Nitpicker’s Nook: December’s linguistic links roundup

The Nitpicker’s Nook is a monthly collection of language-related articles, interviews, and blog posts. If you read something that would make a good addition, email your suggestion to [email protected].

The Nitpicker's Nook, Carol Harrison
By Carol Harrison

’Tis the season for giving or gifting?: The Atlantic’s Megan Garber argues against gifting.

Hey, girl! The analytics website FiveThirtyEight crunches the numbers about why so many girls are in book titles.

In this short interview, The Book Wars talks to Inhabit Media’s Kelly Ward about translating First Peoples’ languages into English.

The Chicago Manual of Style’s Word Usage Workout is an online quiz worth your time! Sadly, however, you won’t learn who you were in a past life.

Grappling for words: the language of wrestling. I don’t know about you, but I intend to wrangle a few of these into my daily conversations.

Author–editor lurve: interviews from Quill & Quire.

Ah, yes Down East: according to the Language Portal of Canada, Atlantic Canadians have a distinct way with the affirmative.

The meaning of meme: want to incite a flame war on Facebook? Read>Play>Edit’s Jamie Chavez provides the ammunition!

Carol Harrison is editor-in-chief of BoldFace and freelance editor and writer at Muse Ink. When she isn’t focusing on words, she’s focusing her Nikon D3200.

This article was copy edited by Larysa Kormikeva.

Wordplay: Assimilation by the mutants

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

Wordplay: Assimilation by the mutants

Every so often, someone asks, “If it’s one foot and two feet, and one tooth and two teeth, why isn’t it one book and two beek? If we have louse and lice, and mouse and mice, why not house and hice? If more than one goose is geese, why isn’t more than one moose meese?”

The answer is that the feet, teeth, lice, mice, and geese have been assimilated by mutants. And there’s more, so much more. It involves men and women; it involves our food. If you tell the tale, you too have been assimilated; if you try to heal, you find that the mutants have taken over even there. You cannot escape the strength of the mutants—nor their filth. The only thing you can take consolation in is that it was much worse a thousand years ago.

What are these mutants? Mutated forms of words, subject to i-mutation. A form of assimilation also called umlaut. You recognize that term, umlaut? It is sometimes used to refer to the two dots over ü and ö and ä (and a few other letters if you’re dealing with the names of heavy metal bands). But originally—and still—it refers to what those dots signify: a vowel pushing up and forward in the direction of the i sound (not as in Modern English “long i” but as in what i stands for nearly everywhere else, the sounds it makes in machine and prison). (more…)