Edited by Tom McArthur
Imagine an encyclopedia devoted exclusively to the topic of the English language and all its intricacies; an encyclopedia with entries about “mumsimus”, “stative verbs”, or “verb of incomplete predication”. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Now throw in the fact that this encyclopedia is 1150 pages long and you have a good description of The Oxford Companion to the English Language. This book is supposed to be used whenever the reader does not understand some technical term in linguistics and wishes to look it up. However, I felt that it was unlikely that I would ever look up such fascinating topics as “clerihew” – what are the chances that I’d ever encounter a clerihew in my life? Have you ever seen one? And how would I ever know about the exciting life of Robert William Burchfield, one-time chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary?
Here are some of the life-changing discoveries packed into this work:
Pleonasm refers to a phrasing including one or more unnecessary words, such as “Could you repeat that again?” instead of “Could you repeat that?” or “Could you say that again?”
The letter “U” has numerous pronunciations, as shown in these words: put, truth, but, music, Saturday.
When we mash together two words, with the first word reduced to a consonant (such as twill, or twas), that leading T is not just any old T – it’s a proclitic T. Amaze your friends with that bit of knowledge!
The two words apathy and indolence are both types of words known as calques: they are translations of a useful word from another language. Apathy is a translation of the Greek for “without emotion”, while indolence is a translation of Latin for “without sadness”. The use of world view to express the German word weltanschauung provides another example.
I have been plowing through this book for the last three years. It’s not my primary reading, but I left it on my bedstand so that, when I grew tired of the primary book I was reading, I could dip into this one for a page or two. That’s why it took me so long.
No, I don’t recommend it for any but the most obsessive students of language.