Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Book Review: What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases by Webb Garrison

Are you one of those who subscribes to AWAD and The Hot Word daily newsletter or RSS feeds? Are you fascinated by words? Have you ever wondered how different words come together to mean something or how in the hands of a supreme author mere letters on paper acquire such power? Have you ever wondered where the words and phrases you use come from? More importantly have you ever pondered on why the words mean what they do — to get a little academic — why is it that a particular signifier, a word or a phrase, signifies what it does?

 If you are fascinated by language or if trivia interests you, Webb Garrison's What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases is a book you need to read. Webb Garrison in his little book tells us the etymology of every day words. What's in a Word? tells us the meaning and origin stories behind 350 words and phrases in the English language. These are words and phrases that most of us use quite commonly, but have no idea about where they came from.

Webb Garrison's book avoids being “academic” — it is not boring or dry and dull. Unlike many etymology books, Webb Garrison's What's In a Word? is not arranged alphabetically, but rather distributed by 17 different categories of origin — Common Speech, Sports & Recreation, Education, etc. The book provides interesting one-or-two-paragraph explanations of words. For example: “Piggy Bank” traces its origins to a substance known as “pygg.” In early days “pygg” was commonly used to make containers. Housewives, then, would keep their coins in these “pygg” containers. Over the years, the “pygg” fashioned into the animal that sounds like the substance leading to piggy banks. Let's take a phrase: What does it really mean to “bring home the bacon?” The origin of this phrase is traced to a 15th century entertainment venue in many ways similar to our modern-day reality shows. In 1445, a church in Essex County, England began awarding a “flitch of bacon” to the pair of newlyweds who after one year of marriage was chosen as the perfect example of happiness and fidelity. A jury of six bachelors and maidens judged the contest, and the winning couple literally “brought home the bacon.” The book also explains and tells the stories of many other words like “Curfew” and “lens” and phrases like eleventh hour,” “raising Cain,” and “on the spot” in a conversational tone. Webb's easy style ensures that the reader enjoys learning about the meanings and origins of many a fascinating word.

What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases is not a book that demands to be read from cover to cover in a sitting or two. I suppose though there will always be some readers who would read it like any other book. Garrison's What's In a Word? however is best read in bits and spurts. It's the kind of book that you pick up and open to any random page and read an entry or two and ruminate over what you've just learned. And with each reading you come away with some more insight and enlightenment about words.

Note: I received What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases free from Thomas Nelson’s BookSneeze as part of its Book Reviews by Bloggers program.

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