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Word Book Ambushed by Misspellings : THE FACTS ON FILE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORD AND PHRASE ORIGINS by Robert Hendrickson (Facts On File: $40; 392 pp.)

January 03, 1988|Fred S. Holley | Holley is the compiler of The Los Angeles Times Stylebook (New American Library).

Books on the origins of words and phrases are almost always a lot of fun: They surprise you, they amuse you, they fascinate you, and they often open doors in your mind revealing influences and trends you had not suspected. To read such a reference book is almost a liberal education, almost enough to compensate for the educational failings described in Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind."

In this coffeetable-size volume, you learn, for instance, that Muslims believe the fruit eaten by Adam in the Garden of Eden was the banana; that Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to answer the phone with "ahoy" rather than "hello"; that the phrase benign neglect was first used to describe Britain's treatment of Canada in 1839; that Bing cherries were named for a Chinese farmer in Oregon, and that chauffeurs were originally French bandits.

You learn, too, that a customer was a prostitute in 16th-Century England; that the word environment was coined by Thomas Carlyle; that printer William Caxton put the letter h into ghost by mistake; that the four oldest words in the English language are gold, apple, bad and tin; that Kris Kringle had no connection with Santa Claus but is an American 1830s corruption of the German for little Christ Child, and that the Russian Pasternak means parsnip.

Just a few more: The French Huguenots were the first refugees to be so called; there are 429 communities named San Jose and 275 named San Francisco in North and South America; the name United Nations is from a poem by Byron, and people were calling World War I by that name before it was over.

And yet . . . and yet. There are so many errors, some spelling, some factual, that you wonder if you can have any faith in all this fascinating data. I doubt that there are any "bloodthirsty Apaches in the works of James Fenimore Cooper." The James Joyce phrase is agenbite of inwit, not againbite; Peter Pan's country was originally Never Land, not Never-Never Land; the Latin for with a grain of salt is cum grano salis, not cum salis granite , and the quotation is "why should the devil have all the good tunes, " not times.

It is Achilles' heel, not Achille's; it is Clare Boothe Luce, not Claire; the founder of Athens was Cecrops, not Cerops; the Roman deity was Jupiter, not Juniper; the show-business publication is Variety, not Vanity; the explorer was Pizarro, not Pizzaro; it's Ptolemaic system, not Ptolemic; the juvenile hero was Frank Merriwell, not Meriwell; it's Pinocchio, not Pinnochio; the composer Verdi's first name was Giuseppe, not Guissippe, and Don Quixote's horse was Rosinante, not Rosiante.

To make matters worse, you find phencyclipine for phencyclidine; corpus delecti for corpus delicti; perjorative for pejorative, superceded for superseded; villified for vilified; upstick for uptick, and a reference to "a great elementary force" when elemental is what's meant.

This is a reference book? Where were the editors? It is a shame to find such truly fascinating material undermined by such a lack of nuts-and-bolts attention to detail.

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