QUIDDITIES by W. V. Quine (Harvard University Press: $20; 241 pp.). My dictionary contradicts itself by defining quiddities both as "trifling distinctions" and as "essential qualities." So much for clarity. The author of these quiddities, collected under the subtitle "an intermittent philosophical dictionary," is professor emeritus of philosophy at Harvard, and his book consists of brief, interrelated pieces in alphabetical order, from alphabet and altruism to variables and zero. In between are such entries as classes and sets, infinite numbers, mathematosis, phonemes, space-time and truth.
"Quiddities" is a lot of fun, thoughtful, philosophical, rather abstruse fun but fun nonetheless. (There are moments when Quine seems to be parodying himself!) I most enjoyed his entries on language and its peculiarities. It is interesting to find that recalcitrant means literally digging one's heels in, that a scruple is a stone in one's shoe, that dear me! is derived from the Italian Dio mio!
It is equally curious to learn that grammar and glamour are similarly derived, that go actually has no past tense, since went is the past tense of wend, and that rich has no true plural, since riches is merely a corruption of a singular richesse.
And I am heartened by his assurance that "we cannot stem linguistic change but we can drag our feet."