Take My Words: A Wordaholics Guide to the English Language.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
As a light-weight introduction to some of the quirks of the English Language, this slim book does an admirable job: the tone is fun, the writing style is perky, and the tid-bits of information are consistently entertaining and often enlightening. Richler skims over a lot of territory in the thrity-six chapters that make up his book, dipping into all sorts of language-related topics: palindromes, Yiddish curses, mistranslations, and the Canadian Press Stylebook to name only a few. This passage, from the chapter on surnames, exemplifies how intriguing Richler's descants can be:
Approximately 15% of Italian surnames are derived from nick-names. This practice is particularly prevalent in the rural south, where unpleasant attributes are captured in surnames. Machiavelli means "bad nails," Boccacio "bad mouth" and Scarsello "little miser." Noted film director Frederico Fellini's family name means "wicked" and journalist Oriana Fallaci's surname does not endow her with professional credibility - it means "fallacious."
On the down side, the individual chapters in Take My Words often seem a bit disjointed, at least in so far as the connections between paragraphs tend to be tenuous and the paragraphs themselves are under-developed. These weaknesses may reflect the fact that the chapters were originally written as columns for Montreal's English daily, The Gazette.
All in all, I would recommend Richler's book to highschool students, but I would caution them not to make it a model for their own writing. Take My Words might very well spur a student's interest in the English language, but it will not take them very far in exploring that subject.
Mark Morton teaches in the Department of English at The University of Winnipeg. He is the author of Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities.
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Copyright © 1997 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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