September 4, 2014 by libroshombre
The British writer Holbrook Jackson once said, “Your library is your portrait,” but he was speaking only of people who care enough about books to possess some. You can tell a lot about booklovers by perusing their personal libraries. This can be extended to the books found in their restrooms, although those collections often emphasize diversion over deep thoughts. The Hill family bathroom, for example, currently contains a variety of small-sized, distracting works, including the lavishly-illustrated “Toilets of the World” and “The Garden Book,” both smaller than five inches tall, as well as an abridged edition of Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary,” a collection of jokes titled “A Man Walks into a Bar,” and, of course, a Webster’s pocket dictionary.
The shining star, however, is “Schott’s Original Miscellany.” Ben Schott has produced three best-sellers by compiling interesting trivia “generally centred on the culture of the United Kingdom,” and its appeal is such that it’s sold in the millions and has been translated into at least 13 languages. Schott began by compiling a pamphlet of information useful to professional photographers and designers, but he spiced it up by adding “a host of curiosities: the kind of information at the back of our minds and on the tips of our tongues, like wine bottle sizes and unusual phobias.” It “stands out for its intelligent comic absurdity,” according to The Financial Times, the NY Times calls it “Pointedly pointless, intentionally aimless, and endlessly entertaining,” and Germany’s Die Welt says “Everybody needs this book. It’s like a book-shaped Swiss army knife.”
Unfortunately, Schott didn’t include an index, so when I was trying to find the “English to American English” section to use in this column, I got immersed in “War Cries of the Scottish Clans,” where I learned that the Cameron clan’s “Chlanna nan con thigibh a so ‘s gheibh sibh feoil” means “Sons of the hounds come here and get flesh!” The same page featured “A Few Contradictory Proverbs,” such as “Great minds think alike” and “Idiots seldom differ,” as well as a description of “Caffeine,” including its chemical diagram, melting point (235 degrees centigrade) and the amounts found in 150 ml of coffee (30-180 mg) versus cola (15-30 mg.).
Some Schott offerings are good for a glance, like Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy in Pig Latin, and “Dining Aboard the Titanic” (which carried 7,000 heads of lettuce, 20,000 bottles of beer, 40 tons of potatoes and 8,000 cigars), while others, like “Cattle Branding Taxonomy,” require more serious consideration. I wanted to re-read the “English to American English” section (“plonk” is “cheap wine,” “bumbag” is “fanny pack,” and “faggot” is “meatball”) after reading an article from The Guardian.com titled “From Marvelous to Awesome: How Spoken British English Has Changed.”
The article describes how an analysis of the British National Corpus, “a 100-million-word text corpus of samples of written and spoken English from a wide range of sources” covering “British English of the late 20th century,” found that twenty years ago “marvelous” appeared 155 times per million words, but now shows up only twice per million, while “awesome” is suddenly being used 72 times per million. However, “awesome is no worse than marvelous,” the article notes. “Both are clichéd exaggerations: the first really means ‘dread-inspiring’, the second implies a miracle has taken place. The fact that you can apply either to a flapjack recipe indicates we’ve long drained them of impact.”
Another way to look at vocabulary changes is by comparing usage guides from different historical periods, like contrasting Henry Fowler’s 1926 “Dictionary of Modern English Usage” with the 1994 “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.” Robin Straaijer writes in a recent Slate.com article that he’s created a database of “75 usage guides and 123 usage problems … spanning a period of nearly 250 years,” which he calls the “Hyper Usage Guide of English or HUGE.” As an example, Straaijer explored how the word “hopefully” has been used over time, with traditionalists insisting on “in a hopeful manner” being eclipsed by “it is to be hoped.”
I know where Mrs. Strickland, my appropriately-named 6th grade English teacher, came down, but that was fifty years ago, when restroom reading possibilities weren’t nearly as interesting. Hopefully, times have changed.