Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language

by Seth Lerer

Boring? Technical? Just the opposite. I found Inventing English more than well-written: fascinating. In the introduction, the author warns that it is not that much “a history of English in the traditional sense” as “a portable assembly of encounters with the language”. Fair enough. Somehow I doubt that “proper” multivolume history of English would make such a good bedtime read. And, of course, the author does not tell us which English is correct and which isn’t.

There are a few minor flaws whose absence would make the book simply great. For example, one paragraph on p. 14 contains two typos: Buchstab instead of Buchstabe, baptiserium instead of baptisterium. Chapters 14 and 15 quote the same passage from Huckleberry Finn — wait! — as cited in John Algeo’s Problems in the Origins and Development of the English Language. That’s a bit sloppy. I’m sure the author could find two different quotations all on his own. At times, especially in the closing paragraphs of his chapters/essays, Lerer tends to sound rather pompous.

Finally, in this particular hardback, I couldn’t find the name of the cover illustration artist anywhere. It’s a shame, given that it was the cover art, reminiscent of paper cutting designs, that prompted me to borrow this book in the first place. A quick internet search reveals the artist’s name: Martha Lewis.

What really was the genesis of jeep; why do we call soldiers GIs; where did gremlin come from? No chapter on war and language can ignore them, for their study reveals the mystery of their coinage and the mythologies surrounding them. They distill what many still want that impact to be: the creation of humorous terms for culture-changing gadgets; the making of people into acronyms and abbreviations.
Scholars love these words. Jeep was a particular favorite of Mencken, who devotes two pages in The American Language to reviewing, and debunking, possible etymologies, claiming only that it “seems to be authentically American”.
We love these words because they are safe. They make war into something funny sounding, fill it with cute creatures, turn killing men and machines into toys (GI Joe was the action doll of choice for my childhood, and the American Motors Gremlin puttered through suburban streets during my high school days). They also bring out national identity in war. Mencken looks for something “authentically American”, little realizing that the truly authentic American creations — verbal and material — of that war were napalm (coined in 1942) and atom bomb. British lexicographers use gremlin to distill what many might imagine as the quintessence of Englishness: a land filled with mythic creatures, a barely controlled ability with new technologies, a stoic muddle-through-it-ness that makes life simply inexplicable. Gremlins, writes a contributor to the journal American Speech in 1944 (in a quotation used by the OED), “are mythical creatures who are supposed to cause trouble such as engine failures in aeroplanes, a curious piece of whimsy-whamsy in an activity so severely practical as flying”. We are, here, not in Shirer’s Berlin or Mailer’s Mediterranean (or, for that matter, Herr’s Vietnam or Swofford’s Iraq), but in the Wind in the Willows or the Hundred Acre Wood. War is just another bedtime story.

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