Can I Have a Word With You?

Can I Have a Word With You?

By Ian Howarth

A review of Can I Have A Word With You? by Howard Richler

Published on October 11, 2007

Can I Have A Word With You?
Howard Richler

Ronsdale Press
$21.95
paper
200pp
978-55380-049-1

Howard Richler has made a career out of etymology, and his fifth book is further testimony to his love affair with the English-language and its evolution.

Richler has plenty to work with: with only 26 letters in its alphabet, English today has 988,969 words and counting. Given that range, Richler here is fairly economical, using 69 words from A to Z as a launching pad for a fascinating look at the English language and its peculiarities. (Not to disappoint his Canadian readers, he does deal with that zee versus zed issue.)

Though many of these essays are culled from Richler’s Gazette column “Speaking of Language,” he hastens to add in his introduction that Can I Have a Word With You? is not subject to the normal space constraints of a newspaper. With that out of the way, Richler sets out with his trusty and surely well-worn Oxford English Dictionary, guiding us through the maze of word origins and their ever-evolving, and sometimes politically charged, usages.

Take “abortionist,” the lead word in Richler’s journey through the alphabet. Depending on who is using it, this word’s connotations are loaded. A pro-choice advocate is more likely to use the word “abortion provider” than “abortionist,” the latter a term more likely to be used by the right-to-life crowd. Or take “blowback,” coined by the CIA. Once meaning a gun, the word is now used to describe what happens when foreign policies come back to haunt, the prime example being the CIA’s backing of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan when the former Soviet Union occupied that county in the 1980s. (One of those Mujahedeen fighters was Osama bin Laden.)

The English language, influenced as it is by so many others, has some “colourful” words, and Richler takes us through the emotions associated with such simple words as blue, green, black, and white. In another essay, “Tabernacle,” likely to appeal to his Québécois readers, he delves into the religious origins of Quebec’s more colourful curse words – exploring the permutations and combinations of the seven words best not uttered irreligiously in a Catholic Church.

To the chagrin of language purists, English is in a constant state of flux: “Verbs are ‘nouned’ and nouns are ‘verbed,'” writes Richler in his “Yada-Yada-Yada” essay. Seinfeld writers turned the noun “guile” into a verb, as in “He’s never guiled.” We can also thank Seinfeld for a host of “Seinfeldisms”: “yada-yada-yada” (replacing the boring “blah blah blah”), “below the equator” (the genital area), “changing teams” (a gay person who turns heterosexual), and many others.

Can I Have a Word With You? is written without pretension or presumption, though it is not beneath the author to launch into the occasional grammar lesson. This is a book digestible in small bites, one that is sure to please teachers, students of language, and those who just like to pull a little dinner table amateur wordsmith one-upmanship. mRb

Ian Howarth is a Montreal journalist and writer.

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