• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #59: Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins


Tony Conigliaro, James Blaine, 1984

Before the internet, we used to argue about stuff. Who led the American League in home runs in 1965? Who lost the presidential election of 1884? What year was Like a Virgin released? There was an aspect of intellect that was the recall and command of factual information that could be used to create informed opinions. Now, of course, just about any information you might ever want is available at the click of a button, eliminating 90% of fun bar disputes. And yet somehow the wide availability of reliable data has made us collectively dumber. Our opinions are less informed, often because now we argue about what information to believe. It's exhausting, frankly, especially the fierce loyalty some of us have to deeply questionable or even nefarious sources of misinformation. We seek data now not to learn but to confirm our all-important biases.


Rant over.


So I have an affection for reference books that goes back to the days when we would regard such with respect. I also adore the English language, and have always been curious about how it came to be what it is. Idioms are my favorite, and I love finding out how a saying became a saying. "Hear, hear," for instance, dates from 1689 when Whigs in Parliament would shout "Hear him, hear him!" to drown out opposition Tory speakers. (Not here, here. Never here, here). This book is a trove of such gems, including "just deserts," deriving from the French word "deservir", to deserve (not earning yummy post-meal treats, although "deservir" is also the root word for dessert). "Pipe down" comes from the age of sail when the bosun would play a tune on his whistle to instruct a ship's crew to go below decks.


More, so much more, in this book (and, I'm sure, not in this book). Language is a fun place to play. Like in so much else, having actual facts is half the fun.

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