Highly Irregular

Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don't RhymeAnd Other Oddities of the English Language

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If you're like me, you make the occasional spelling blunder. And you might occasionally misuse a word or two in conversation, like saying "literally" when you mean "figuratively".

And if you're also like me, you regularly notice other people doing the same thing, and you deride their sloppy ignorance. OK, you're not perfect, but those other people are a lot worse, right?

This book has good news and bad for people like us, reader. Good news: as an English user, you've mastered an extremely tough language. It's something of a miracle that you're just making infrequent mistakes.

Bad news, at least for us language snobs: focusing on language purity is a silly waste of time. English isn't pure and logical. Never was, never will be. OK, maybe you knew that. As George Carlin noted, we park in driveways, and drive on parkways. But Arika Okrent keep piling up examples of how deeply weird things are, Englishwise, things you (almost certainly) have never noticed and taken for granted.

A couple of examples: as the Firesign Theater's Nick Danger asked when the narrator described him as "ruthlessly" walking again by night: "I wonder where Ruth is?" Well, "ruth" used to be an actually-used word, meaning, roughly, "compassion". You can still find it in dictionaries, but it's long vanished from normal usage. Still, "ruthless" hangs around.

And we have a few perfectly good words for things that smell bad: they stink. They reek. Where's the equivalent single word for things that smell good? Dude, there isn't one. Whoa.

And then there's the word (yes, it's a word) "Mrs." Where did that R come from? Probably filched from "Colonel", right?.

Okrent does a fine job of explaining why these oddities came about, using all the tools of the linguist's game. The major problem was Britain's long history of being invaded by various funny-talking forces. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes did their part by evolving their mostly-Germanic tongue into "Old English". The Vikings introduced their own contributions, and the Norman invaders brought in Latin and French influences. All very messy.

Okrent tells the story of today's English with an accessible style laced with humor. A very fun read.

And "literally"? Reader, it's just a general intensifier now. That's happened to a lot of words. Get used to it.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:02 AM EST

Wild Problems

A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us

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I used to listen to Russ Roberts' Econtalk podcast pretty religiously, back when I listened to podcasts. For a mixture of reasons, I got out of that habit. But I got to know Russ (I call him Russ) as an uncommonly sane and wise voice with persuasive views on a host of topics, not just economics. This book reinforces that impression.

A "wild" problem, in Russ's view, is one that isn't amenable to utilitarian calculus, where we add up the pros and cons, seeing which solution comes out on top. Whether to have children, whether to accept a new job, what sort of hobbies to adopt, etc. His classic example is Charles Darwin's attempt to figure out whether he should marry. Darwin, being kind of a geek even back then, listed arguments for and against, writing them down for posterity to chuckle at. Pluses on the left, minuses on the right. This, Russ argues, was an unsatisfactory decision method. (A number of other historical figures, like Ben Franklin, argued for a similar process.)

Russ urges us to view "wild" problems as posing deeper questions than the utilitarian What will make me happiest? Instead they challenge us to ask: what kind of person am I? What kind of person do I want to be? What are my most important values? At bottom, we're encouraged to make mere "happiness" a secondary factor in decision-making, instead focusing on "flourishing", as it is measured against our unique set of talents and principles.

It's a wise book. I'm at the stage of life where my big life decisions are behind me, so its self-help component is less important in my case. Still, it's valuable advice for life-navigation "even at my age".

If you're looking for a gift idea for high school graduate, I think this would be a better choice than Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go!


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:01 AM EST