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I love words. I am a voracious reader and I experience a geeky pleasure whenever I discover the meaning and origins of a new word. My youngest daughter shares my obsession. We talk about the words we have a particular fondness for -- words like wanderlust, cadence, popinjay, menagerie and panache - and we have both been known to pick up the dictionary in an absent moment and browse its contents just for the hell of it. (Perhaps we need to get out more!)
Hubert van den Bergh clearly had people like my daughter and me in mind when he decided to write this book, a collection of 600 English words that you pretend to understand but don't. The idea is that once you master these words, you can start using them in conversation and appear very clever. I am certainly a believer in expanding one's vocabulary, not specifically to appear clever though. I think that the more words you have at your disposal, the better your ability to communicate. My daughter and I both enjoy writing and we want our writing to be as powerful and expressive as possible, something that is not going to be helped by using the same words over and over again.
The author suggests that this book should be kept on your bedside table or on top of the toilet cistern. I couldn't agree more. This is a useful family resource, the type of book that can be dipped into when you have a few minutes to spare. If you just learn a new word every day, you can gradually widen your vocabulary. I also think this could be a handy book for those who are learning English as a second language and want to improve their comprehension skills.
It isn't the sort of book you would want to wade through page by page and I must admit I find the A to Z layout of the words a little bit laborious. I think it would have been more interesting if the words had been grouped by theme. The format of the book is just like a mini dictionary which of course makes it easier to look up a particular word, but you might well be thinking why not just read the conventional dictionary? However, Hubert van den Bergh's book is no weighty tome and it does lighten the subject by the inclusion of illustrations, which serve as an aide memoir to the word's meaning. He also provides comprehensible examples of word usage and additional details about the origins of particular words.
I like words that have surprising origins. Not only will this book help you expand your word power but also your general knowledge. As you get to grips with words like Orwellian, Dickensian, Kafkaesque, Byronic and Tartuffe, you learn useful snippets about the world of literature. There are many historical and political references too as we explore the origins of words like Machiavellian, Luddite and blitzkrieg.
To add to the relaxed style of the book, you can also pick up some QI-like pointless yet fascinating facts in the course of learning about words. For instance, did you know that, "Author, Virginia Woolf drowned herself by putting stones into her pockets and walking calmly into a river like an automaton"? or that "while conducting, Tchaikovsky held onto his chin with one hand: he had a phobia that his head would roll off otherwise due to his hortatory hand movements"? I find that the stranger or more shocking the piece of trivia, the more likely you are to remember the word it is illustrating.
One of the disappointing and frustrating aspects to this book, however, is there is no guide to word pronunciation. I think this would have helped, especially with tricky words such as Quixotic, synecdoche, schadenfreude etc. It is all very well knowing the meaning of a word but if you mispronounce it in company, it isn't going to make you look clever at all (just like someone who has been reading a book on how to sound clever!) So I feel this was a major omission on behalf of the author.
I was half smug and half disappointed to realise that I was already familiar with a large number of the listed words, but it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book. I never tire of reading about the rich history and evolution of our language and how much it has been shaped by other languages such as Latin, German and French.
It is hard to understand why certain words were included. I find it difficult to believe that anyone would fail to understand what was meant by the word 'carnivalesque' for instance, but it is worth including because of its interesting etymology. The word 'carnival' derives from the Latin, carne vale, meaning 'farewell to meat.' In Roman Catholic countries the carnival was the period of weeks leading up to Lent, the last time to indulge before the Lenten fast.
Another word with an unusual story to it is roué, the word for a sex-obsessed old man. This derives from 18th century France where men who became sexually involved with much younger women were punished by having their backs broken on a wheel, or roue.
I have found that this book comes in handy for quizzes too. If you have a crowd of people, it can be quite fun to test their word knowledge. For instance, you can read out one of the example sentences such as "Henry VIII became obese in his old age and later portraits of the monarch show him looking positively costive" or "A Judge will not stand for contumely from a witness in court" and see who can tell you what those words mean.
This book is available new from Amazon for £6.99 for a hardback copy. There is also a Kindle version for £6.64. So if you want to be less obtuse and oblique in your communication and you want something to help you to develop acuity and the confidence to expostulate and extemporise on a regular basis, it may be worth buying.