Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Damp Squid – Jeremy Butterfield

It is, perhaps, appropriate that I should round off the year’s reading with such a fascinating little book (thanks, Heather) on words, grammar, and the history of dictionary making. I am a bit of a word nerd. Their history, various contexts, and their evolution are something I find endlessly intriguing. I am also aware that a formal study of linguistics and grammar are way beyond my capacities. It was a real pleasure, then, to pick up a book like this and understand it all.

Through an explanation of how modern dictionaries are compiled and the definitions of words are checked against everyday use, we are shown how the English language evolved, why the spelling of English words is notoriously quirky, and the ways in which certain words group together.

What I found most interesting is the way in which language evolves. This causes a great deal of anguish to those who believe there is a single correct form of English and that not using this is responsible for all sorts of moral degradation. But dictionaries, like rules of grammar, can only describe how language is used by people; they cannot dictate.

Language is a truly magical invention. I do believe that we should all strive to know it as best we can so that we might all communicate more effectively. That is not going to be done by learning rules, but through expanded means of use. We should all read more and more widely. We should all write more and explore the subtleties of the language. Perhaps, just perhaps, all those words would work a bit of magic and the future would be more peaceful.