Wednesday, August 19, 2015

For The Love Of Books & Words, Read This

If you love books and words, as I do, you’ll enjoy All In A Word: 100 Delightful Excursions Into The Uses and Abuses of Words by Vivian Cook.  Though the book first came out in 2009, I just discovered it at Strand, the amazing independent bookstore in New York City, where new, used, and rare books are featured.

One essay, What Does A Word Mean?, explores how different languages treat the same words or concepts.  For instance, each language confronts the same physical world, and thus, needs to account for similar things. 

She wrote: 

“The fact that all human beings share a particular meaning still does not explain why they need it.  Why should we all want to talk about I and live?  It could be our shared human situation; we all live and die so we all need to talk about the experience.  Or it could be hardwired into our brains; we say kind of and part of because our brains work by dividing things up, just as underlying the most sophisticated computer routine is a binary sequence of “0”s and “1”s.

“It is almost impossible to decide whether we can think without words.  For we necessarily have to turn the thoughts into words to be able to handle them better or to talk to other people.  Even if there is a stratum of the mind where concepts are separate from language, how could we tell other people about it without passing through language?”

A fascinating essay, Gender and First Name, noted that:

“Men's names typically have fewer syllables than women's.”

“Men’s names are typically stressed on the first syllable, women’s names on the second.”

“Women’s names tend to end in a vowel, men’s names in a consonant.”

Very interesting stuff.

Here’s an amazing stat, according to the book:

“About 45% of the running words in any piece of English writing comes from the top hundred.  In other words, knowing a hundred words lets you recognize nearly half the words you meet in English.”

One essay pointed out how some common words come from people’s names.  For instance, sandwich is from Earl of Sandwich.  Boycott comes from Captain Charles Boycott.  Hoover comes from the Hoover vacuum cleaner.  Pasteurize is from Louis Pasteur.  A sadist originated from Marquis de Sade.

Other essays explored things like:

·         Can apes use words?
·         Can sounds and letters have meanings in themselves?
·         Words and multiple meanings
·         Aphasia (the loss of the ability to use words)
·         Malapropisms
·         Word associations
·         Word games with letter arrangements
·         Pig Latin
·         Forming new words

Cook also points out that Shakespeare coined some 700 words, including obscene, priceless, unsolicited, savagery, and compulsive.  In his writings he used 31,543 different words, a very high number, especially when considering how few words existed in the language at that time.

“If thinking depends upon language, then controlling people’s language is a way of controlling their thoughts,” wrote Cook in a chapter entitled: Warning Words Can Damage Your Health.  She really makes you think about the language in a way you may not normally.  For instance, she has an essay entitled: What is a word?

She notes that one working definition of a word is a unit of language that can be said on its own, such as “door” as opposed to just “y.”

There are many ways to look at the power of words and language.  I’ll conclude with a few quotes featured in the book:

“Words are magical in the way they affect the minds of those who use them.”
-Aldous Huxley

“A word has the meaning someone has given to it.”
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The meaning of words, in law as in life, depends upon their content.”
-Mr. Justice Tugendhat

“A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you first thought of.”
-Burch Bacharach

“People use thought only to justify their wrong-doings, and words only to conceal their thoughts.”


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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