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Book Review

A Novel Word Buff's Guide to the Universe of Language

March 26, 1985|FRED S. HOLLEY | Holley is the compiler of the Los Angeles Times Stylebook (New American Library)

World of Words: The Personalities of Language by Gary Jennings (Atheneum: $16.95)

It is good to find a novelist who is a word buff, who is concerned with meanings and derivations and, yes, the use of the language. Gary Jennings' updated version of his 1965 book consists of literate, scholarly, entertaining and informative essays, each of which could stand on its own.

I was fascinated to learn that in 16th-Century France there was a fad for pronouncing r like z. The fad, of course, died but it left us with chaise instead of chaire. It is likewise a revelation that the Tuareg people of the Sahara write either from left to right, from right to left, from top to bottom or from bottom to top, as the spirit moves them.

The use of gender (masculine, feminine or, sometimes, neuter) is a phenomenon that has largely and mercifully disappeared from English, and we think little about it; Jennings points up its peculiarities, noting that wife is neuter in German and so is child in Danish. To confuse still further, sun is feminine in German and moon masculine, though they are exactly the opposite in all the other European languages.

The Googol Connection

He points to such coinages as Jonathan Swift's yahoo, Lewis Carroll's chortle, Gelett Burgess' blurb, H. L. Mencken's ecdysiast and, most interestingly, to a creation of the 9-year-old son of a mathematician: googol.

Jennings is scathing in his treatment of the linguistic distortions being wrought in the name of feminism. "Ms., " he points out, "means nothing, is an abbreviation for nothing." But I would suggest that the usage is an idiom developed through its use by generations of grade-school children who, not knowing the marital status of their teachers, were accustomed to say, as I used to, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Freeman.

And I would take more serious issue with Jennings' allegation that the man in chairman is not a sex reference at all but a derivation from the Latin manus for hand, referring to the hand that wields the gavel and analogous to manipulate or manhandle or manacle. Ingenious, yes, but I can find no indication in my references that the man in chairman is any different from the man in bondsman, herdsman, schoolman, congressman, weatherman or even newspaperman.

He is interesting on the use and development of four-letter words, on the derivations of the names of people and places and on a host of other little-known aspects of language. And he is clearly right in pointing out that the personalities of peoples are reflected in their languages, suggesting, for instance, that the Hopis' "concept of an indivisible space-time continuum" gives their language a different dimension and that our study of it might help us understand the thinking of Einstein.

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