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Word Watchers : WICKED WORDS: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms From Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present by Hugh Rawson (Crown: $24.95; 435 pp. ) : THE WORD'S GOTTEN OUT by Willard R. Espy (Clarkson N. Potter: $24.95; 354 pp.)

February 18, 1990|Fred S. Holley | Holley is the compiler of the Los Angeles Times Stylebook

Two books about words, the first a little on the scholarly side but fascinating, especially for word buffs; the second intended for those who read and run, who do crosswords on the bus and who enjoy a flurry of light verse.

You might wonder just why this much attention is lavished on these "Wicked Words," but Hugh Rawson, whose earlier "Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk" was a delight, quotes Daniel Walker's introduction to a commission's report on the violence at the Democratic National Convention in 1968: "Extremely obscene language was a contributing factor . . . and its frequency and intensity were such that to omit it would inevitably underestimate the effect it had."

It is no surprise that the context in which some terms are used mean much: "The meanings of words change considerably, according to who uses them, how and in what circumstances." And it is, of course, true that words once regarded as objectionable are part of our daily conversation and that words once used casually in polite society are now regarded as objectionable.

The King James Bible of 1611 contained words we were brought up to regard as "dirty." There are words in Chaucer and Shakespeare that make English professors blush. Roman Catholics have tended to feel more strongly about profanity, Protestants about obscenity.

Ransom describes pro-choice as a euphemism; he notes that the original agitators were merely agents; he points to the occasional "fond meaning" of bitch, quoting Jonathan Swift's addressing an "Agreeable Bitch" (though he overlooks the contemporary adjective bitchin' ); he traces bunk to Buncombe County, N.C.; he traces cad back through caddie and cadet to the Latin capitellum (little head), and he notes the "conspiracy of silence" around the name of the first president of Yale: Thomas Clap.

He quotes a wonderful plea for forthrightness from "father of pornography" Pietro Aretino (1492-1556): "Why don't you say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no--or else keep it to yourself?"

And in a passage on eunuch, he quotes a blast from poet Robert Burns at an unidentified critic:

"Thou eunuch of language: thou butcher, imbruing (staining with blood) thy hands in the bowels of orthography: thou arch-heretic in pronunciation: thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis: . . . thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense."

He traces gringo to the Spanish griego for Greek; he refers to Machiavelli as "a clear-eyed secular humanist."

But one has to raise questions, mostly of omission: He mentions the phrase deaf as a doornail, overlooking the customary dead as a doornail, which occurs in Shakespeare's "Henry IV" and, of course, in Dickens' "Christmas Carol," in which "old Marley was as dead as a doornail." He refers to out of one's tree without mention of out of one's gourd ; he overlooks the terms duded up and punk kid, and one wonders how he could write of limey without reference to the Limehouse district of London.

And, of course, there are the spelling goofs, which can probably be traced to editors rather than the writer. One squirms at Sen. Howell Hefflin (Heflin is correct); Sir Richard Catsby (Catesby), and Thomas Chandler Halliburton (Haliburton). Those of us in the word business, especially book publishers, fall afoul of proper names all too often, and it is always embarrassing.

"The Word's Gotten Out" is something else. It is a miscellany of word games, often delightful light verse and a number of linguistic points that both entertain and inform.

Espy's games are many and exotic: rhopalics (his own version is ESPYramids Up), pangrams, hypallage and rebuses; they are fun but they tend to overwhelm sometimes. The verses are clever; Espy has a fine ear for rhyme and rhythm and a great sense of fun.

He gives us some student malapropisms ("the St. James Virgin of the Bible"); he presents a management time-and-motion team's report on a philharmonic orchestra; he offers 15 words that may have originated with Shakespeare, including assassinate, dwindle, laughable and monumental, and 14 Czech versions of the name Mary, each with a different context or connotation, and he shows us Hamlet's soliloquy in pidgin English:

"Bin or no bin, you ask im? You tink more good, carry in by you head stone belong string him bad fella throw it, carry im arrows belong bad debbil luck. You tink fight by dem troubles belong sea, make um all-time stop?"

Espy points to the difference between poossl-q and posssl-q , and he informs us that a Dr. Schultz, not the fabled Dr. Guillotine, invented the execution device.

And he leaves us with words of wisdom: "What you and I need is the right word--fat or thin, brisk or lazy. The right word. In the right place. At the right time."

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