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A Twisty Thing, This Tongue of Man : CRAZY ENGLISH The Ultimate Joy Ride Through Our Language by Richard Lederer (Pocket: $16.95; 127 pp., illustrated)

September 17, 1989|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

The late Jascha Heifetz performed superbly with the violin, sat above Beverly Hills to act the part of a crotchety recluse and privately played rollicking word games. One of his favorite questions was: What English word contains three double letters in a row?

The answer, bookkeeper, is among the peculiar constructions in Richard Lederer's new travel guide for the tongue, under the heading of Most Consecutive Letter Pairs. Bookkeeper appears right after Most Letters With One Consonant, eerie, and just ahead of Most Consecutive Dots, Fiji.

Etymologists will enjoy the many allusions to the way classic words were transmuted into this most complicated, most widely spoken of all languages. Entomologists will like it, too, because Lederer picks nits to play with and the nit began English life as a small louse before it grew up to be the object of a super-punctilious picker.

Chauvinists will be pleased to learn that English has the largest vocabulary in the world, as many as 2 million words. Lovers of paradox will embrace Lederer's profound questions: "In what other language can your nose run and your feet smell?" Or, "In what other language do people drive in a parkway and park in a driveway?"

Oxymorons abound here, a class of contradictory figures of speech, not to be confused with a class of low achievers at a distinguished California university. Such everyday impossibilities as random order, loose tights, original copy, small fortune and plastic silverware remind the reader that English is more confounding than clear.

Sesquipedalian--literally a foot and a half--words have a chapter to themselves. Antidisestablishmentarianism, 28 letters, was widely believed to be the champion when I was a small boy but Lederer insists upon floccinaucinihilipilification, 29 letters, as the longest word in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating back to 1741 and having to do with dismissing something as worthless or trivial.

One might dismiss this thin book with the same heavy word. A section on phobias, for instance, has two full pages of names for things people are afraid of, starting with heights (acrophobia) and ending with words themselves (verbaphobia).

Or a section on zoological metaphors, for another instance, makes its point and then begins to benumb: "Let's face it. It's a dog-eat-dog world we live in. But doggone it, without beating a dead horse, I do not wish to duck or leapfrog over this subject. It's time to fish or cut bait, to take the bull by the horns, kill two birds with one stone, and, before everything goes to the dogs and we've got a tiger by the tail, to give you a bird's-eye view of the animals hiding in our language." That is one of the shorter paragraphs of a dozen such consecutive, figurative explorations of the English barnyard. Like the late Hubert Horatio Humphrey on the stump or Ravi Shankar on the sitar, Lederer beguiles and bedazzles but does not always know when to stop.

Yet the virtue of discovery lurks within these pages because the author has rummaged around the language, tested its idiosyncrasies and developed bags full of second or third thoughts about how words are spoken or spelled.

The sound of "ash" characterizes words of violent action: bash, clash, mash, slash, thrash and smash. Words beginning with "sn" often have to do with the nose: sneeze, snort, snore, sniff, snuff, snoot, snout and snivel. Words beginning with "fl" suggest rapid movement: flicker, flutter, flurry, fly, flash, flee and flare. Is that, Lederer asks, because sound and sense are related, because forming the "fl" sound flicks the tongue forward against the upper teeth?

The chapter on contronyms, words with opposed meanings, is a lesson in the way words assume "Janus faces" and speak with contrary intention. Clip means to fasten or separate: One clips a coupon from a brochure or clips a coupon to a brochure. Left is staying and going: Mary left the room; Marius was left in the room. Oversight is scrutiny and neglect: Amanda had complete nuclear oversight; Ashley's oversight caused the meltdown.

The whole "nym" section--acronyms, bacronyms, consonyms and more--is an aid to lexicology, explaining words about words. Most of us live by labels, including the general semanticists and the semioticians; "onym" is a Greek root for word or name.

So enjoy the good with the bad. Skip the doggerel poetry on the past tense of verbs and the pronunciation poem borrowed from the Manchester Guardian. Forget the chapter on alliteration because it suffers from redundant overkill rather than oversight in either sense. I can't recommend the palindromic imaginary dialogue with Dr. Otto Rotcod, a case of more coming and going than the humor sustains.

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