Strange to Say: Etymology as serious entertainment

Deborah Warren (Paul Dry Books, 2021), 213pp, £12.41
ISBN 978 1 589 88157 0

Reviewed by Hannah McCall

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Deborah Warren is an award-winning author of poetry and a former Latin teacher, and her background informs her winding exploration of English words and expressions in Strange to Say. This is a book that seems to be dedicated to Warren’s love of the written word and the joy and interest she finds in it.

There are five sections, although the distinction between them is a little fuzzy as Warren likes to follow her tangents wherever they may lead her. We meander our way from the linguistic heritage of Britain to the influence of religion, on to the prominence of references to animals in idioms, and then to the history of names, followed by an almost rapid-fire assortment of other topics of possible interest. Warren lives in Massachusetts but her focus does bridge the gap between US and British English; the subject matter is accessible and relevant to both markets, and probably to other varieties of English too.

Strange to Say is, according to the introduction (‘An Invitation’), a book that is designed to be read in short bursts: ‘Open it anywhere and dip into a couple of pages’. This seems appropriate. Warren is clearly passionate about her subject matter, but her manner of presenting it is possibly an acquired taste. There are constant detours and interruptions – including a lot of commentary only loosely related to the topic at hand – which left me feeling a little disorientated. Other readers may enjoy this style very much, but I found it jarring and hard to immerse myself in. It does have the feel of the author talking directly to the reader and wanting to entertain and engage them, and many others may be more receptive to this than I found myself.

The nature of the book is not one that allows for any great depth to the topics that are covered. This is a book for skimming or for reading small chunks of when one is idle. Sometimes this lack of depth is a little frustrating, but the reader could always view this as a gateway to further research. This would be easier to do if Warren referenced her sources and quoted material. The tone of the work makes it difficult to determine what the author is reporting as ‘fact’ and what should be regarded as a tale or as possibly apocryphal – or even if she makes such distinctions at all. (For example, Warren tells of Lady Godiva – a real person – riding naked through town as if that actually happened, when most historians regard it as a myth.) This fast-and-loose attitude to accuracy is fine as a piece of entertainment, which this book aims to be, but it does lessen the feeling of trust in the author that a reader generally likes to have. This balance is one that is very well struck by authors such as Susie Dent, so it is not an unrealistic expectation in this genre.

I think the tone aimed for is ‘irreverent’ but sometimes this edges into a feeling of mean-spiritedness – for example, on page 41, ‘Wellness (just my opinion) is not a term used by the best people: opt for “health.”’ Again, this may be a reflection of my own personal taste. Humour, too, is subjective. There are sections of the book that are wryly amusing, but some of the witticisms, for me, fall flat – for example, on page 13, ‘She [the Roman deity Diana] also liked a nice piece of mullet—a fish, not the hairstyle (and I’d wear a fish on my head sooner than a mullet haircut)’.

Strange to Say is not going to be an essential book for editors. However, it may be of interest as a light read and an introduction to how fascinating etymology can be.

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