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Many years ago, I came upon a little book called The Misspeller’s Guide. It listed, alphabetically, commonly misspelled words, under the principle that if one only knew how to misspell a word, one would not know how to find it in a dictionary. Thus went the logic of this obscene little book: one would look up the word one didn’t know how to spell and find it there misspelled, adjoining which misspelling would be… the correct spelling.
A rather roundabout way to get one’s way, and so I thank COMMAND-OPTION-L, which brings up the spellchecker in my word processor, every chance I get. I’m not that strong a speller, and so I don’t for a moment undervalue the idea of a guide, any guide, that should take as its ambition the deepening of a reader’s knowledge of a subject however narrow. And yet, I do want more than bran with my muffin, and expect these good-for-you-guides to offer something in the way of flavor, a flavor very absent from the Soviet-era soup of The Misspeller’s Guide.
Whereas Fowler’s Modern English Usage, in any of its incarnations, is pure pleasure. There’s doubtless a medicinal value to its entries, but they entertain so deeply and purely that it all goes down very sweetly. Over the years, I’m sure I’ve read it more for pleasure than with purpose, less in the hope of resolving a confusion over “pleonasm” than to discover that “pleonasm” was something at all. Where the New Oxford American Dictionary defines the term as “the use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning, either as a fault of style or for emphasis,” Fowler’s, at left, offers a little lesson.
And that’s just the beginning of the entry. It goes on, there, and elsewhere (“see also TAUTOLOGY;” “see also SIAMESE TWINS.”) I love to “see also,” and find there’s enormous pleasure in seeing the confusing and frequently frustrating set of expectations and hesitations we call a language wrestled with, agreeably. Who could resist the little dance of “piteous”?
Yes, spontaneous development has worked badly here, but one can always “See also PLENTEOUS” and watch things work out, if not better, charmingly enough.
(For more about “the seamy underbelly” of such guides, you could do a great deal worse than spend an hour with this.)
More from Wyatt Mason:
Conversation — October 2, 2015, 8:26 am
“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”
Amount paid last fall for a Ford Escort driven by Pope John Paul II:
92 percent of Mexicans are relaxed by a pleasant-smelling bedroom.
Swedish biologists studying coercive mating in mosquitofish discovered that females’ brains get larger as males’ genitals get longer, and male Madagascar hissing cockroaches were found to attract mates with either their enlarged testicles or their enlarged horns.
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."