Stormy weather has been sabotaging beach plans this summer, but the climate has been ideal for afternoons of reading; for the first time in a year, my stack of must-read word books is shrinking rather than growing. Here are some snack-size samples from the (more or less) recent titles I’ve been catching up with:
Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, by Seth Lerer (Columbia University Press)
“During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, manhood found its challenges not just from the temptations of the telephone, but from the allure of aestheticism. The word dude was picked up in the early 1880s to define the new dandy of that movement. But it had appeared earlier, in the late 1870s, to describe the fastidious man of the city. The artist Frederic Remington wrote to a friend, in 1877, 'don’t send me any more [drawings of] women or any more dudes. Send me Indians, cowboys, villans [sic] or toughs.' . . .
"By the early 1880s the word was everywhere. New York newspapers made sport of it. Provincial papers noted its spread. Even Ulysses S. Grant deployed it (conscious of its recent coinage) in his Memoirs: 'Before the car I was in had started, a dapper little fellow – he would be called a dude at this day – stepped in.'"
The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, by Mark Abley (Houghton Mifflin)
"For people in eastern Europe a generation ago, the allure of English was not technological but political. Moscow walls in the 1980s were alive with graffiti like QUEEN GROUP THE BEST and KISS FAN (a fan of the rock group Kiss, that is). Russian bands, such as Primus, attracted smaller amounts of graffiti. When a graffiti writer wanted to celebrate Primus, he used English: PRIMUS FANS. But if he disliked their music or their style, he reverted to Russian: PRIMUS GOVNO ('Primus is s---’). English became the language of adoration. After the Soviet Union collapsed, young Russians began to realize that the West was not the paradise of their fantasies. But regardless of politics, the language of rock, and more recently of rap, continues to be an object of European desire."
The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus, by Joshua Kendall (Putnam)
“Roget waited. A few minutes later, the woman he so much wanted to see during his final moments in Switzerland came bounding through the library’s glass doors.
“Madame de Stael’s shoulders were bare and she wore no shawl, just a white muslin blouse. In her left hand she carried a twig, which she kept twiddling.
"De Stael’s dark eyes fell on Roget with a mix of concern and affection. 'Pierre!' she exclaimed. 'Comment vas-tu? Je m’inquiete pour toi.' ('How are you? I’m worried about you.') Putting her arms around Roget, she peppered him with questions about how he was managing to deal with the imminent threat of prison."