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Red Herrings and White Elephants - Albert Jack

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Genre: Languages / Author: Albert Jack / Paperback / 288 Pages / Book is published 2007-09-03 by John Blake Publishing Ltd

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      26.06.2011 23:08
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      A very clever read

      Words are fascinating - especially when you consider the complicated ways that we, in the UK, use them. I think any non-native English speaker coming here would find plenty to get confused about in our usage of the language. From the way we use words to mean something other than the literal meaning (for example, the current 'yoof' speak of using 'sick' or 'ill' to mean something is very good) to our frequent use of simile and metaphor in everyday situations , our language, and the way we use it, almost seems designed to bemuse and confuse.

      Idioms are something we use everyday - phrases that we take for granted, and grow up understanding the meaning of, although if taken literally they rarely make sense. A classic example is 'Hair of the dog', commonly used by hungover folk to justify having another drink. It evolved from an old belief that rubbing the 'hair of the dog that bit you' into a bite wound would stop it from getting infected and encourage it to heal.

      This book gathers together this, and many other well known Idioms, and explains the origins of each one. It begins with a brilliant introduction, itself packed full of more idioms than you could shake a stick at, and then breaks into categories which define the origin of each idiom - for example, whether it originated from nautical terms, from literature, or perhaps from the bible . This is very handy if you perhaps want to look up a particular breed of idiom, but rather less so if you are hunting down a particular phrase without knowledge of it's origins .Never fear though, there is a handy index at the back which tells you on which page you can find your idiom, so finding relevant information easily and quickly is a breeze.

      Most entries take up no more than half a page, and all are written down plainly, with a clarification of what the idiom itself means (handy for me, as I'd never heard of some of them) and then a brief history of its origins. Occasionally, entries are accompanied by small cartoonish sketches, but for the most part pages are plain and unadorned .

      I found the book very interesting - and very surprising in places . I learned a lot of idioms I'd never heard of, understood better some that I only partially understood, and found myself at times utterly gobsmacked by how they came about . I was pleased to note also that single word idioms were included, as other books on the subject I have read have tended to leave them out in favour of more verbose phrases.

      One entry that particularly stood out for me was 'Berk' - a word I use very often as a term of mild ridicule. I must call my boyfriend a Berk at least five or six times a day, thinking it quite a nice, almost affectionate, term. I now know that it is a shortened version of Berkshire Hunt - which is, of course, a nice little bit of Cockney rhyming slang! Seems the word is a little ruder than I originally thought!

      There are a couple of entries in the book where no definite origin can be proven - in those situations, the author provides the various possibilities and briefly comments on each, but for the most part the explanations are pretty conclusive and based on sound evidence .

      The book is incredibly easy to read - and I don't think you have to be any kind of expert in the English language to get the best from it .

      Overall, I very much enjoyed this book - it was an enjoyable and educational read, and was easy to use to find specific words or phrases . Of course, it can't include every idiom ever used - but there is a sequel (which I have yet to read) entitled 'Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep'. This book can be picked up from £2.81 (including postage) on amazon.co.uk .

      5 stars ....

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