17 May 2012

Words on Books Does Not Exhaust the Classificatory Possibilities

I recommend everyone go visit your local hospice thrift store and pick up a copy of the 1995 Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language by David Crystal.

You'll find it up near the cash desk, under glass, with the other valuable but vastly underpriced books. I don't remember what my copy cost, but it was not much for five pounds of scholarship and a lot of pretty charts and pictures.

This book was printed in Italy, which helps to explain its heft and quality; also that Cambridge University Press no doubt subsidized its publication with some left-over funds found in one of the colleges frequented by Erasmus of Rotterdam or someone very much like him.

Everywhere one browses one finds oneself entranced, as we like to say in Better English. Right now I'm peering at the section on Lexical Differences. These are the differences between aeroplane and airplane, oesophagus and esophagus, buses with one "s" and busses with two. The scholarship never intrudes entirely on the pure fun of discovering so many things you kind of knew, but didn't know for sure you knew, or didn't know, if you know what I mean.

Take one example: "This set of categories does not exhaust the classificatory possibilities, but it should be enough to suggest caution when working through an apparently simple list of equivalents..." Fussy paragraphs are balanced by maps and graphs. One of these makes clear why it is dangerous to drive on either side of the beltway, I mean ring road, in Britain.

Where we step on the gas, they press the accelerator. Our gas gauge is their petrol gauge. Side mirrors are wing mirrors and our fender is their wing, but attempt to fly with these wings and your car will end up on the verge, I mean in the ditch. Parking lights are sidelights, hoods bonnets, mudflaps splash guards. Some things don't change across the Atlantic, however. Steering wheels and speedometers are exactly the same words either side.

It's twenty of four here, but twenty TO four there. She's in heat here, and ON heat there. Californians have a new lease on life. The Brits have a new lease OF life.

Our popsicle is their ice lolly; and your everyday friendly crossing guard here becomes the lollipop man/woman over there. In Australia and other strange places the big stop sign carried across the street in front of a pack of snarling juveniles is called a lollipop, because it looks like one, although if I ever saw a lollipop that size I'd probably go into anaphylactic shock or something.

These "parallel prepositions" and "equivalent lexical items" (as we pseudo scholars will call them) remind me of an amusing group of faux language guides published in great numbers by Workman Press. These so-called guide books take you through a typical foreign language situation – in a cafĂ©, meeting someone, fending off unwanted advances, tasting an odd smelling cheese – and as you read down the page and study the words you discover the phrases are telling a story. Very funny, at least it was funny the first time I figured it out.

In Wicked Italian, as an example, a plausible set of phrases about checking in to your hotel, translated into modern Italian, becomes something else again:

"We made these reservations six months ago."

"Then we will sleep here in the lobby."

"We reserved a room with a view."

"The sheets are still damp."

"What is that smell?"

"Something is living in the bathroom."

"There is no hot water. The cold water is brown."

"Is this a towel or a postage stamp?"

... and, finally, "Four stars my ass! More like four dogs, I'd say!"

This passage is titled You Can Win at Hotel Negotiation. Most of the "Wicked" Language guides remain in print. You can find their absurdities not only in Italian, but also Wicked French, Greek, Irish, Japanese and Wicked Spanish.


Now in a revised second edition, and not at all expensive for what you get:

Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language published by Cambridge University Press. paperback $45. ISBN 0521530334. Revised edition published 2003.

Categorized under Foreign Language, Humor, and for some reason also Guidebooks:

Wicked Italian: For the Traveler by Howard Tomb (sic), illustrated by Jared Lee. Workman Publishing paperback $4.95. ISBN 0894806173.

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