English: Exact and Elegant, Jun 05 | Eats, Shoots & Leaves


If you are committed to commas, delighted by dashes, appalledby misplaced apostrophes, semi-delirious over semi-colons, or excited by exclamationpoints, then you’ll love Eats, Shoots & Leaves:The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss. The charming title, describing aninnocent panda who reads a poorly punctuated wildlife manual and becomes agun-toting menace, shooting, then leaving after eating, has turned a Britishbook by a self-proclaimed punctuation stickler into a NewYork Times best-seller.The dedication sets the tone—reverent, but humorous:

"To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St. Petersburg who, in1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters,and thereby directly precipitated the Russian revolution."

Truss worries that punctuation lapses could have serious consequences(Children Drive Slowly) or add to illiteracy (Xma’s Trees for Sale,Book’s Sale). Her pet peeve is the movie title TwoWeeks Notice,with its missing apostrophe. The book is chock full of tidbits. For example, “apostrophe” comesfrom the Greek, meaning “turning away,” thus “omission.” Amongthe most delightful is that Chekhov wrote a short story called “TheExclamation Mark.” A collegiate secretary dreams about punctuationmarks, reciting the rules to the commas and semi-colons. Suddenly, a questionmark straightens out, and the emotionally bland man realizes he has hadno need of one for 40 years.

Delightful details are the essence of I AlwaysLook Up the Word “Egregious”:A Vocabulary Book for People Who Don’t Need One, by Maxwell Nurnberg.It is fulfilling to understand that “acropolis,” Greek forhighest point in the city, is the source for the word “acronym,” usingall capital (highest) letters. Moreover, a common acronym, FLAK, is fromGerman: Flieger (flyer), Abwehr (defense), Kanone (cannon). “Glitch” isalso from German, glitschen—to slip or slide. A decibel, honoringAlexander Graham Bell, is a tenth of a bel, the smallest degree of differencea human ear can distinguish.

Odus, Greek for road, gives us odometer, exodus, electrode, and cathode.Anthos, Greek for flower, bequeaths our anthology; am (not) brosos (mortal)combines to “ambrosia”; an (without) orexis (appetite) leadsto anorexia; sym together with posis (drinking) often happens at symposiums;trauma (wound) and dromos (running) could make a traumatic syndrome fora dromedary; dia (through) and phanein (to show) reveal our diaphanous,cellophane, and epiphany.

Latin donations include computer from putare (to think), tumorfrom tumere (to swell), assume and consume from sumere (to take),placebo (I shall please), replicate and complicate from plicare(to fold), and vague, extravagant, vagabond, vagrant, and vagusnerve from vagari, to wander.

If you have ever been dismayed by changing financial conditions,Webster’s Dictionary of WordOrigins will explain that sinceabundance is based on unda, Latin for wave, as in undulate, howcan you expect money to be steady state? Why are alibis elusive?Alibi in Latin was simply a slippery adverb meaning elsewhere.Harry Potter fans may appreciate knowing that basileus, Greek forking, becomes basiliskos, the legendary reptile with a crown-likespot on its head that could kill with a glance. We also get basilicaand basil from the same root.

A Dictionary of Foreign Terms references the sources and meanings of foreignterms and expressions that have been assimilated into the English language.Common examples include bayou, shampoo, shibboleth, schmooze, simpatico,ecru, exit, gestalt, gaffe, frappe, and flair. My favorite of the expressions,acta est fabula (the play is over), would make a great epitaph.

A similar book devoted just to words and expressions from Latin is Amo,Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Advantage and to theAstonishment of Others, by Eugene Ehrlich. Ones you can start using immediately, ifyou don’t already, are ad nauseam, ab absurdo, in absentia, in camera(in private, as camera means chamber), in ovo (immature), ipso facto (bythat very fact, absolutely), in toto, mox nox in rem (soon night, to business—meaninghurry), nolens, volens (being unwilling, willing—meaning willy-nilly),non sequitor (it does not follow), peccavi (I have sinned), quantum (asmuch), quorum (of whom), sine qua non (without which, not—meaningabsolutely necessary), and bona fide (in good faith).

Two other fun books that get down to the letters that make up the wordsare The Joy of Lex: An Amazing and Amusing Z to Aand A to Z of Words,by Gyles Brandreth, and Alpha Beta: How 26 LettersShaped the Western World,by John Man.

And now, a siesta, si diis placet. Okay, I’ll tell—“ifit pleases the gods.”