Highly Irregular: Why tough, through, and dough don’t rhyme – and other oddities ...

Arika Okrent, illustrated by Sean O’Neill (Oxford University Press, 2021), 240pp, £14.99 (hbk)
ISBN 978 0 19 753940 8

Reviewed by Hannah McCall

Buy this book

Highly Irregular is a light and engaging wander through the eccentricities of the English language. Arika Okrent is a linguist with a PhD from the University of Chicago, and her extensive experience in writing accessible and entertaining articles about language is reflected in her style here. She has previously collaborated with Sean O’Neill to produce content for the website Mental Floss.

The English language – as editors will know – is, at times, deeply illogical, and Highly Irregular aims to explain why it has come to be this way. In the author’s words: ‘it’s not the case that English is just weird. It’s weird in specific ways for specific reasons. It’s not utterly unexplainable chaos. It’s just highly irregular.’ I suspect that many editors will have looked at a particular spelling or construction and wondered how on earth it ended up like that, and Okrent will probably have an answer for you here.

Highly Irregular comes from an American perspective, but Okrent is careful to include and analyse oddities in and differences with other varieties of English, particularly British English. This is only natural given the history of the language and it has been balanced nicely.

The book is broken down into sections with overall themes (eg ‘Blame the French’, ‘Blame the Printing Press’), which lead on to article-style chapters exploring some specific examples. The aim is to allow for two different styles of reading. For some readers, this will be a collection of answers to questions about some of the strange bits of English, and they will be able to dip in and out however they fancy. For other readers, this will be a history of English that showcases how logic comes second (if that) to habit and usage, and they will want to follow its development in the order Okrent provides. Both of these camps will, I think, be satisfied.

If we look at the content in order, then, we move from early Germanic influence (‘Blame the Barbarians’) to Norman dominance, on to the invention and proliferation of the printing press, and then on to the attempts to provide some sort of standardisation, which brought us the idea of ‘correctness’ in written English (‘Blame the Snobs’). The author concludes with a section that highlights how English has been moulded by the people who use it – a reflection of language ‘not as something we control but as something we do’. It is here, perhaps, that I felt this study resonated the most. Language is about habit and familiarity, and it is about creativity and expression. It changes to suit the needs of its users, and its oddness is part of its beauty.

Okrent is a knowledgeable and witty guide. It is not in the scope of this book to provide an in-depth examination of the evolution and development of the English language, but she is able to give enough detail to satisfy most general readers without it becoming overwhelming or confusing. Readers who have studied the English language or linguistics beyond GCSE level may well be familiar with many of the concepts and events described, but the writing is pitched well enough to act as a pleasant refresher rather than a frustrating retread.

I could take or leave the illustrations. Some of them are mildly amusing, and they help to break up the text in a pleasing enough way, but I didn’t find myself particularly engaged with them. I’m sure, though, that some readers will find them a useful aid to the written content.

Highly Irregular is a fun and genuinely interesting book. It is not a heavy read, nor is it particularly complex. It’s enjoyable to spend time with and readers may find that it sparks a deeper interest in the topic.

Reviews of other literary criticism and books on language All book reviews