The secret lives of words

Paul West, 1930-

Book - 2000

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New York : Harcourt 2000.
Main Author
Paul West, 1930- (-)
Physical Description
296 p.
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

West's enthrallment with words manifests itself in wordplay and puns throughout his inventive novels and evocative nonfiction. He now attests to his obsession in a piquantly entertaining celebration of the evolution of language. Our understanding of most words, West observes, is based on the latest sound bite in a long and convoluted history, and he proves his point in 400 genealogies of words both common in our times and lost to history. Words, West believes, are vital testimony to "human ingenuity and the bizarre twists we permit our minds to make," and this sensibility is everywhere present in his gleeful word biographies. Feisty is Middle English for "farting dog"; mump once meant "grimace" or "scowl"; and fiction is a magical word that metaphorically links the kneading of bread with the making and safeguarding of a paradise. There is nothing predictable here, neither West's word choices nor his spicy and cheerfully opinionated etymologies, and even the most casual of readers will be smitten with his knowledge and wizardry. --Donna Seaman

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Library Journal Review

Since his student days, West, the celebrated author of 18 novels (e.g., Life with Swan, LJ 2/1/99) and a dozen works of nonfiction and poetry, has kept notebooks of words that intrigue him, especially those with puzzling or obscure histories. In this wonderful little book, he shares some 400 of these words. West's special interest is in a word's origins and its evolution over time and across cultures. Each entry traces the word from its origin through its sometimes-tangled development into current usage. More than etymologies and dictionary facts, these entries are short essays about words as human "characters" with fascinating life stories. From digging up the origin of the word assassin among Muslim hashish eaters to finding the roots of quark in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, each entry gives the reader the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of untying a knot. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book that word enthusiasts, writers, and indeed any interested reader can savor. Highly recommended.--Paul A. D'Alessandro, Portland P.L., ME (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

This wonderfully curious and eclectic volume falls somewhere between a quirky dictionary and a romantic sonnet. Novelist West (The Dry Danube, p. 422, etc.) is irrevocably enamored with etymology, and his "short homage" to some 400 words can be thoroughly enjoyed by reading A to Z--or by simply "dipping" into it, as the author himself recommends. From abacus to zymurqist (the two word histories boil down to "dust to dust," West points out), the entries range from the complete evolution of a word to merely a quick and surprising note on its modern usage. West truly believes that words are living, organic things with an etymology and a personality, and his passion sets a romantic backdrop for some enigmatic histories. His "choice of words" reveals a romantic and inquisitive personality, where the terminology of sports and cooking, medicine and Macbeth abound. He tells us that "amethyst" means "not drunk," that a "companion" is one who eats bread with you, and that "orchid" and "avocado" originate from various cultures' terms for "testicle." From "poetry" to "placenta," from "mistletoe" to "marzipan," West's collection brims with peculiar gems. He quips that "we might say alias is aka aka," and in another entry he claims that "you do not need this word until you find it." He also contemplates the origins of curious phrases like "stone the crows," "kick the bucket," and "screw the pooch." To West, joy is epitomized by language--"the silk of our so-called civilization"--and tragedy is exemplified by the dead-end term "etymology unknown," or EU. Words are a metaphor for his universe and he believes that "we rehearse on words for the mysteries of the cosmos, which, of course may not even have a beginning." Word enthusiasts will find trivia and treasure here. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.