Highly Irregular

Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don't RhymeAnd Other Oddities of the English Language

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If you're like me, you make the occasional spelling blunder. And you might occasionally misuse a word or two in conversation, like saying "literally" when you mean "figuratively".

And if you're also like me, you regularly notice other people doing the same thing, and you deride their sloppy ignorance. OK, you're not perfect, but those other people are a lot worse, right?

This book has good news and bad for people like us, reader. Good news: as an English user, you've mastered an extremely tough language. It's something of a miracle that you're just making infrequent mistakes.

Bad news, at least for us language snobs: focusing on language purity is a silly waste of time. English isn't pure and logical. Never was, never will be. OK, maybe you knew that. As George Carlin noted, we park in driveways, and drive on parkways. But Arika Okrent keep piling up examples of how deeply weird things are, Englishwise, things you (almost certainly) have never noticed and taken for granted.

A couple of examples: as the Firesign Theater's Nick Danger asked when the narrator described him as "ruthlessly" walking again by night: "I wonder where Ruth is?" Well, "ruth" used to be an actually-used word, meaning, roughly, "compassion". You can still find it in dictionaries, but it's long vanished from normal usage. Still, "ruthless" hangs around.

And we have a few perfectly good words for things that smell bad: they stink. They reek. Where's the equivalent single word for things that smell good? Dude, there isn't one. Whoa.

And then there's the word (yes, it's a word) "Mrs." Where did that R come from? Probably filched from "Colonel", right?.

Okrent does a fine job of explaining why these oddities came about, using all the tools of the linguist's game. The major problem was Britain's long history of being invaded by various funny-talking forces. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes did their part by evolving their mostly-Germanic tongue into "Old English". The Vikings introduced their own contributions, and the Norman invaders brought in Latin and French influences. All very messy.

Okrent tells the story of today's English with an accessible style laced with humor. A very fun read.

And "literally"? Reader, it's just a general intensifier now. That's happened to a lot of words. Get used to it.

Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:02 AM EST