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Origins of the Specious: Myths and…
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Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language

by Patricia T. O'Conner

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fun look at some of the quirks of the English language ( )
  lindap69 | Apr 5, 2013 |
This is a quick read that had some interesting information on word and phrase etymology. The authors give their advice about how best to handle some of the more "controversial" words but generally conclude that English is always changing and it is the people who are speaking and writing that ultimately decide what is correct. Horrors! It will be hard for me to take the authors' advice on some issues, such as employing "they" and "none" as either singular or plural.

Because I have read a number of other etymology books (and love to browse the Word Detective's website), some of these word histories were familiar to me, but there are others that were new. There were a few surprises for me in this book, particularly about words that used to be simpler but were "Frenchified" or "Latinized" by scholars or scribes trying to force them to have more illustrious histories. For example, words like debt and doubt originally did not have the silent "b"; and "octopuses" or "octopodes" has been the accepted plural of the Greek word octopus since it was adopted into English, but some folks decided it was Latin instead and tried to make the plural "octopi."

The writing style is light and conversational but it is clear that the authors know their stuff. This is an entertaining read for anyone who enjoys the craziness of the English language! ( )
  glade1 | Aug 23, 2012 |
Summary: Origins of the Specious is about half grammar guide and half etymological study, and it does exactly what the subtitle suggests: takes a look at some of the myths and misconceptions about the English language, and decides which ones can be ignored, and which are here to stay. There are sections on hard-and-fast grammar rules that aren't actually, swear words, phrases and expressions that are commonly confused, whether some un-PC words actually have un-PC origins, what really counts as the Queen's English anyways, the way pseudo-Latin and pseudo-French have crept into the language, etc. Each chapter is broken up into short mini-essays (a few paragraphs, typically), with the word or phrase under discussion as the heading.

Review: Etymology fascinates me, and I'm always interested in being a better and more grammatical writer, so I'm predisposed to find books like this interesting. I did pick up a lot of interesting trivia from this book; for example, I'd bet that most people lamenting the fact that having to use "he" as a generic third-person pronoun is sexist aren't aware that "they" used to be a perfectly acceptable choice, and the "he" rule was started by a woman. Or that any etymology that involves an acronym ("For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge" or "Fornication Under Consent of the King") but dates prior to the 1960s or so is probably wrong. Or that the first use of "Xmas" was in 1551, which well predates the supposed War on Christmas. There's also an extensive notes section, and what's better, an index, for looking up specific points to support your side when arguing about grammar on the internet. Also, since it's mostly trivia, I didn't find myself getting hyper-paranoid about the correctness of my own writing, like I did after Eats, Shoots, and Leaves or Lapsing Into a Comma.

My biggest issue with this book was that in each relevant section, O'Conner and Kellerman provide a "ruling" on acceptable usage, and that after a while, the reasons behind these rulings started to seem inconsistent. For example, they point out that it's okay to boldly split infinitives, because Shakespeare and his ilk did so, but then later in the book say that despite such greats of the English language using "niggardly" to mean "cowardly", that's probably not okay today. And common usage has changed "decimate" enough that it now means "cause great loss of life" rather than "execute one tenth of", but despite common usage, they're not willing to give up on the literal meaning of "literally". Those are all examples that I agree with (with the possible exception of "decimate"), but similar varying logic was used in a number of cases that I thought were more borderline. They do point out that these are just their opinions, and that English is an evolving language in which the majority rules... but since that's the case, it makes this book, and all similar ones, feel somewhat inconsequential. If the majority rules, what's the point of having a rulebook? 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It's not broad enough to be of use as a general grammar guide, but it should be of interest to word nerds as a source of fun trivia. ( )
  fyrefly98 | Apr 17, 2012 |
Is this a book to use or a book to read ? ( )
  carterchristian1 | Aug 2, 2011 |
An interesting collection of myths and misconceptions about certain words in the English language. In addition to those pesky myths about split infinitives and ending sentences with a preposition, O'Conner and Kellerman set many other misconceptions to rest (using "that" with a person instead of "who" in relative clauses, the idea of "none" always being singular), while debating the changing meanings of some words (such as unique, enormity, surprised/astonished). The book is extremely well researched, with a shockingly large amount of notes pages at the end. That was my only quibble with this book -- it ended so abruptly, leaving me wanting more! ( )
  rabbitprincess | Mar 12, 2011 |
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For Dan Green
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My family was the first on our block to get a television set--a mahogany Philco console with rabbit ears protruding at odd angles from somewhere in the back.
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From the jacket: Do you cringe when a talking head pronounces “niche” as NITCH? Do you get bent out of shape when your teenager begins a sentence with “and,” or says “octopuses” instead of “octopi”? Do you think British spellings are more “civilised” than the American versions? Would you bet the bank that “jeep” got its start as a military term and “SOS” as an acronym for “Save Our Ship”? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re myth-informed. Go stand in the corner–and read this book!

In Origins of the Specious, word mavens Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman explode the misconceptions that have led generations of language lovers astray. They reveal why some of grammar’s best-known “rules” aren’t–and never were–rules at all. They explain how Brits and Yanks wound up speaking the same language so differently, and why British English isn’t necessarily purer. This playfully witty yet rigorously researched book sets the record straight about bogus word origins, politically correct fictions, phony français, fake acronyms, and more. English is an endlessly entertaining, ever-changing language, and yesterday’s blooper could be tomorrow’s bon mot–or vice versa!

Here are some shockers: “They” was once commonly used for both singular and plural, much the way “you” is today. And an eighteenth-century female grammarian, of all people, is largely responsible for the all-purpose “he.” The authors take us wherever myths lurk, from the Queen’s English to street slang, from Miss Grundy’s admonitions to four-letter unmentionables. This eye-opening romp will be the toast of grammarphiles and the salvation of grammarphobes. Take our word for it.
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A lighthearted assessment of English-language conundrums.

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