How to Read a Word

by Elizabeth Knowles (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010): 191pp, £12.99 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 19 957489 6.

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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Elizabeth Knowles, a luminary in the field of lexicography, writes – rather endearingly – as though her readership is as much enamoured and deeply involved in the world of words as she is:

  • 'there are really no limits to the interest we may have in words'
  • 'a natural response to this story [about similarities of pronunciation between Dutch and Scouse] is to want to know more about the Scouse variant of English'.

So if you're Really Interested in the development of word usage – to the extent of writing notes about your lexical findings and transferring them to a spreadsheet ready for analysis, a procedure she expects you to be undertaking as a result of your journey with her – you'll love this book. It'll give you a clear course to steer in an occupation you'll find utterly absorbing.

Wandering off on detours

But despite the recommendation by a QI co-author in the blurb, if your interest is more casual and your hope is for entertainment combined with erudition, you might find that Knowles's in-depth and earnest approach makes your attention wander off on detours of your own making. Mine did, anyhow, several times. I kept trying – honest, guv! – but the thought of writing this review and so getting the book behind me meant that I put it down unfinished, unusual for me.

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