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The Word Guy: Yule love these new books

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By Rob Kyff
Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
 

I'm dreaming of a word Christmas — thanks to a blizzard of new books about words and language.

Pick up one — or six! — for your favorite language lover — and perhaps, that's you.

When Webster's Third New International Dictionary appeared in 1961, purists pounced on its “radical” usage judgments, such as its inclusion of “ain't” and its suggestion that the distinction between “enormity” and “enormousness” was fading. Oh my! David Skinner chronicles the contretemps in “The Story of ‘Ain't' — America, Its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published” (Harper Collins, $26.99).

Speaking of “ain't,” the former slave and abolitionist leader Sojourner Truth deployed that verb with dramatic effect in her acclaimed “Ain't I a Woman” speech.

Veteran journalist and teacher Constance Hale cites Truth's oration to demonstrate the vigor of verbs in “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch — Let Verbs Power Your Writing” (Norton, $26.95). Her handy tips will help your verbs crackle, spit and thunder.

“Bimbo,” a shortening of the Italian word “bambino,” was first used to demean men, not women. “Fanatic,” which was derived from the Latin word for a temple, once referred to someone possessed by a deity. You'll discover fascinating word stories like these in “The Unexpected Evolution of Language” by Justin Cord Hayes (Adams, $13.95).

And, for the surprising origins of today's cliches, check out “The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread” by Nigel Fountain (Reader's Digest, $14.99).

“Movers and shakers,” for instance, first appeared in a Victorian poem, where it described not captains of industry but “music makers ... world losers and world forsakers.”

For adolescents struggling to sort out conjunctions, clauses and dangling participles, the American Heritage Student Grammar Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95) offers clear, concise definitions of grammar and usage terms.

Geared to students in grades six through 12, this gleeful glossary illustrates its entries with cartoons and catchy sentences instead of rulers across the knuckles.

Just for fun, pick up “Tyrannosaurus Lex” by Rod Evans (Perigree, $14). This delightful collection of word play offers everything from anagrams (“The Declaration of Independence — a co-penned edict held nation free”) to oxymora (“free with purchase”) to palindromes (“A Santa deified at NASA”).

Speaking of whom, may your holidays be filled with many happy clauses!

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254

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