Book of the Month
Spread the Word

Publisher: Times Books
Author: William Safire

ISBN 0812932536


Here's a word that will be new to many readers: 'maven'. A maven is someone who has accumulated a large amount on knowledge on a particular topic. (The word comes from the Hebrew meaning 'one who understands'.) A maven is not only an expert, but someone very ready to to discuss his area of expertise. For many years William Safire wrote the 'On Language' column of the New York Times Magazine, and rather as the posts in the Prof's Blog have been collected into A Little book of English so Mr Safire has collected his articles into a series of books, of which 'Spread the Word' is one. This book covers the period of the mid-to-late nineties, so some of the faster-moving expressions in English have already moved on. (A PDA is now a 'Personal Digital Assistant' whereas in the nineties it was a 'Public Display of Affection'.) Nevertheless, many of the etymological and grammatical points raised by the book are still very valid today.

Because the book is a collection of articles anywhere from five hundred to just over a thousand words long, there are no chapters as such. Instead the 305 pages have the articles arranged with the titles in alphabetical order, though it is uncertain if the titles are alphabeticalized to suit the order of the articles or vice-versa. If you get lost, there is a comprehensive index at the back covering both the topics discussed and what seems like every name and proper noun in the book. Mr Safire is acompulsive name-dropper, mentioning people and organizations that are often not relevant today. What makes this book readable, apart from the author's gentle humour, is his curiosity, which leads us to discover why doughnuts have a hole in the middle (because the middle was the last place to cook, and often stayed soggy) and exactly what Stanley said when he met the explorer and missionary David livingstone in Africa.
Mostly this book is about words - whether they should be hyphenated, where they come from and how they are used. English changes all the time, and by and large the writer approves of this fact. He likes expressions such as 'bungee jumping', but is rather more sceptical about 'hazmat' (the short form for 'hazardous materials'). Mr Safire might have gone too far in his preference for 'me' rather than 'I' after 'than', and it could be argued that his definition of when to use 'between' rather than 'among' is simply wrong. However, he is not afraid to admit his mistakes, and the book includes short letters from other language experts, professional and amateur, around the country who debate or correct his text. In fact there is one article called 'Incorrections' which explains why some of the people writing in with corrections are themselves incorrect. This too has a response pointing out that 'Incorrections' is itself incorrect, and the term for incorrectly correcting something which was actually correct is 'paradiorthosis'. A famous case of paradiorthosis occurred when a vice-presidential candidate in the USA visited a school and 'corrected' a student's spelling of 'potato' to 'potatoe'.
The writer assumes that readers will either know the difference between things like a modifier and a qualifier, or will take the trouble to look these up. (A modifier changes meaning or makes the meaning more precise, a qualifier tells us how much. So with a 'quick brown fox' 'brown' is a modifier and 'quick' is a qualifier.)

Who is this book for? As will have been seen from the description above, this is a book by a language expert for other language experts. This does not mean that a reasonably advanced EFL student could not learn a lot by jumping into the deep end (to use an English metaphor). There is a lot of interesting discussion between the grammar points. For example if 'pleasure' as a verb means 'to give sexual satisfaction', should a hotel receptionist be saying 'My pleasure' when thanked for doing something like confirming a room reservation? If this question made you stop and think, then this book is for you.

Verdict: Fascinating, but a bit dated.
Assessment 6/10

Previous book reviews