The Story of Be: A verb’s eye view of the English language

D Crystal (Oxford University Press, 2017), 208pp, £12.99 (hbk)
ISBN 978 0 19 879109 6

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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The first thing that came to mind when I dipped into David Crystal’s latest offering was Lytton Strachey’s Ermyntrude and Esmeralda.

E & E appears to be a mere froth – in Strachey’s own words, ‘an entertainment’– and it was apparently not originally intended for publication, only appearing over 30 years after his death. It’s about the discovery of sex by two upper-class girls who have recently left school and are now in correspondence with each other, and it’s illuminated with an abundance of delightfully wicked drawings by the renowned Art Deco artist Erté. So, the two books would appear to be poles apart.

Let me explain how I perceive the similarity between the two. E & E was written for Strachey’s friends in the Bloomsbury Set. He used their own specific form of language, and beneath the entertainment aspect of his book was a serious and educational undercurrent (it was in fact a savage indictment of the restrictive sexual mores of the Edwardian era). In Be, a similar duality is achieved, albeit by a different mechanism, and with a very different undercurrent.

Be is presented by OUP as an entertainment. The cover is jokey to a degree that makes it seem that the publisher is hoping to capitalise on the Eats, Shoots and Leaves market. But in fact the book is a serious and well-focused treatise on specific aspects of the development of the English language, and I’m glad to see that the front flap states that its appeal will be to ‘a broad audience of language lovers and wordsmiths’. Inside we taste and digest ‘Alongside I’m, which became the modern informal standard form, we see I’re (from I are) and I’se (from I is) along with several spelling variations, such as I’z’ (p34), and ‘The use of a preceding negative particle attached to the past tense form (as in naere or nere) died out in Middle English’ (p136). Just as Strachey’s sense of humour would have appealed to his compeers, so is Crystal’s sense of humour one that appeals to People of Language: ‘A verb’s eye view’ (cover) and ‘Today, me is the only pronoun on whom woe regularly falls’ (p137). The dichotomy between first impression and actual content is neatly summed up by the contrast between the chapter headings, eg ‘Wannabes and has-beens’, and their subtitles, ‘nominal be’.

It’s peppered with century-old illustrations from Punch and by some more recent cartoons. It has two indexes: names and subjects.

So, as with Crystal’s Spell It Out (2012), the people who will appreciate this book are going to be those who enjoy exploring the more abstruse byways of our language, and who already have a fair knowledge of – or at least an interest in – its construction and roots. If that’s you, get ready for an enjoyable ride. However, those who have only a hazy idea of what ‘etymology’ means might find that this book takes them out of their depth. I imagine that SfEP members will find it interesting, informative and fun.

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