Knowles, Elizabeth. How to Read a Word.

Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010.

A great many books have been published over the past fifty years alone on the origin and meaning of various unusual English words, phrases, and idioms. I know, because I’ve read probably most of them.

Knowles has a long history of involvement with Oxford UP’s dictionary-publishing tradition and what she attempts here is not another collection of anecdotal mini-histories but a systematic discussion of how one properly investigates word origins and usages. In the early days of the OED and its successor publications, this meant paging patiently through books and newspapers and journals, hunting for examples — and that, in fact, was Knowles’s first job. Nowadays, though, the publication of so many full-text sources on the Internet makes the search much more efficient and (potentially) more complete.

Unfortunately, Knowles doesn’t seem quite to know how to go about explaining what she so obviously comprehends. The chapter on types of dictionaries, what they’re actually for, and how to read an entry, wavers between providing unnecessary details on the obvious to saying nothing at all about the not-so-obvious. “Where to Look for Answers” relates her own anecdotal pre-computer experiences but mentions only a handful of well-known websites on English word usage. I reread the “Understanding What We Have Found” a couple of times and still didn’t find much about interpretation — just a few more anecdotes. And throughout, she skips madly about from one subject to another and back again, making it difficult to keep track of anything.

And the last 40% of the book (which runs less than 200 pages in any case) is all appendices, which largely repeat in outline form what the author has stated earlier in the book. Sadly, Knowles has missed the opportunity to take popular interest in lexicography (such as it is) in a new, more organized direction.

Published in: on 24 December 2013 at 10:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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