Highly Irregular: For Those Who Love Words



By Arika Okrent, Illustrated by Sean O’Neill

Oxford, 244 pages (+ back matter)





If someone on your holiday list is a words person, have I got a book for you! The title says it all. English is a top contender for the globe’s quirkiest tongue. Most languages turn to “mutts” over time, but English might be the mangiest pooch in the lingo kennel.


Perhaps the author’s surname seems familiar. Arika Okrent is the niece of writer, editor, and media personality Daniel Okrent. (He also invented Rotisserie Baseball.) Arika has something “Uncle Danny” (her handle) doesn’t: a Ph.D. in linguistics. At a glance, Highly Irregular is a shrunken coffee table book, but Okrent knows her stuff. Her special gift is to take expertise and spin it in cheeky tones that make her book a delight.


She divides her work into seven sections, beginning with a reoccurring exclamatory question: “What the Hell, English.” She explores silent letters in words such as colonel, should, surprise, and those with y vowels (like gym). She also analyzes head-scratchers such as why we drive on a parkway but park in a driveway. And what about the weird ways we use big and large? (No one is ever a “large” spender.)


How did English get to be such a literary Jello salad? In Section II, Okrent tells us to “Blame the Barbarians,” the Germanic tribes who got the English ball rolling. We don’t pronounce the g in gnat, gist has a j sound, it’s a gh in give, but the one in girl is a hard sound. In most cases, the original Germanic peoples sounded words differently, or our current words derived from completely different ones no longer used. I won’t even get into words ending in ing or ly, but Okrent does.


The Germans don’t bear all the blame. In Section III Okrent tells us to “Blame the French.” They gave us a bunch of synonyms the likes of which confuse those seeking to learn English. Why does veal come from a calf, and pork from a pig? There are words whose context determines how we stress them–insult, transform, protest–and phrases that need prepositions and those that don’t. Do we really need to say “without a doubt” when we already have doubtless? Why is love pronounced as if it is “l-of?”


We can also “Blame the Printing Press,” which Okrent does in Section IV. Standardized spelling led to the “Great Vowel Shift,” which left us with ghost sounds–like the very h in ghost. It also left us with aspirated sounds that don’t appear on the page, like that same h sound in girl. The printing press helps explain why grew and sew don’t rhyme, nor do steak and freak. I was surprised (or sup-prised if you must) that Ed Sullivan got it right when he promised a really big “shew” (show). If you want to know why Worcester is pronounced in ways unlike how it looks, or why the Brits make Cholmondeley sound like “Chumley,” this chapter explains.


In Section VI we “Blame the Snobs” who add extra letters, use Latin plurals, show off by pronouncing letters no one else does, set the rules on homophones (words that sound alike), and lay down the law on how to say and spell foreign words. They are the sort who pronounce the p in receipt and the l in salmon, cough up phlegm, and insist that more than one octopus or rhinoceros are octopi and rhinoceri. They tell us when we are here and when we hear, and exhort us to be discreet when we are discussing discrete data–and I don’t mean datum. Noah Webster gets either credit or a kick in the pajamas (foreign word) for dumping the u in colour and sending people off to jail instead of gaol.


In the end, we also have to “Blame Ourselves.” Why on earth would we keep words that now usually exist only in the negative, like uncouth, unkempt, and disgruntled? It makes no sense that we “clean” things that are dirty but never “undirty” them, or raise "up" a window. (You can’t raise it down!)  Why is the plural of goose, geese but an extra moose or two isn’t meese? We have weird negative phrases such as “I didn’t sleep a wink.” (Presumably there must be people who go to bed, sleep one wink, and arise.) We retain abbreviations that are outdated. You might not wish to tell a woman who introduces herself as Mrs. Smith that her abbreviation is short for “mistress.” Most of the time when someone says literally, they mean figuratively.


What a fun book. Give it someone in your family but save it for the last gift, as you’ll spend the rest of the day laughing at the absurdity of your native tongue. Because, what the hell, English?


Rob Weir






The Paris Library: Half of a Superb Novel



By Janet Skeslien Charles

Simon and Schuster, 368 pages.





The Paris Library was the best seller, but is it a great novel? In my estimation, it is half of a very good one.


I mean this literally. Janet Skeslien Charles’ novel takes place in two different time periods: Paris in 1939–40, and Montana in 1983. You perhaps associate the first dates as the outbreak of World War II and the year of France fell to the Nazis. You probably don't associate 1983 in Montana with anything at all, though that's not necessarily a problem. It does, however, make for a force fit when Charles attempts to link the two periods.


The action revolves around Odile Souchet, a young French woman with a head for numbers and a good command of English–good qualifications for working at the American Library in Paris at a time in which shelf classification was done by the Dewey Decimal System. One of the first questions many readers wish to know is whether such a thing as the American Library actually existed. Yes, and it still does, though 1939 wasn't the best time to begin a career there. Odile, though, yearns for independence and experience, and her job at the library is arguably safer than that of her twin brother Rémy who joins the French army, or those of her boyfriend Paul or her father. Paul is a policeman and Odile’s father is the chief of his police prefect. We meet the library’s fascinating and eccentric staff and clientele, including directress Dorothy Reeder; Boris Netchaff, a Russian who works at the circulation desk; Helen, a reference librarian; Peter, a bookshelver; and researchers the likes of Professor Cohen, Mr. Pryce-Jones, an Englishmen; and several women of noble or upper bourgeois standing. All will be in jeopardy when the Nazis capture Paris in June 1940.


Much about the library is "based on a true story," a phrase that means the broad strokes occurred but most of the details are imagined. American libraries existed across Europe and tried to stay open when hostilities broke out, a situation easier to manage until late 1941, as the United States was not yet at war with Germany. It was also the case that, in some instances, Nazi commanders of a literary bent sought to protect American libraries and their collections–until they no longer could.


The travails of Odile and her colleagues are by far the most engaging part of the novel. War changes those like or Odile who managed to survive. She will not be a librarian when the war ends and, through various circumstances, she loses her social mentor Margaret, an ambassador's wife; her boyfriend Paul; and several family members. She will also gain an American husband, Buck.


Buck is the Montana connection, though Odile is a widow in 1983. She is living in Froid, Montana, a real place that had a population of around 300 people in 1983. You might also recognize its name as French for “cold,” which it certainly is for Odile. She's the resident oddball, a sophisticate among the hayseeds. Montana advances Charles’ attempt at a circular tale, as Odile will act as a mentor to teenaged Lily Jacobsen, a banker's daughter whose mother has died. Lily is as much at sea on the ranch as Odile was in her own family, plus Lily is at the awkward age in which she has a school* tormentor who also happens to be her rival for the boy she likes. Among the ways Lily seeks to become different is through an interest in French language and culture. Odile will be her guide, until that role abruptly ends.


There are various acts of betrayal in The Paris Library, each of which is plausible, though they sometimes smack of contrivance. I was left wondering why Charles bothered with the Montana part of the novel at all, aside from wishing to show older women mentoring younger ones. I am an advocate of mentoring, but The Paris Library suffers from trying to do too much and gives short shrift to Lilly's development. This necessitates a few illogical leaps. As many do when writing love letters to libraries, Charles also occasionally ascribes too much power to the written word.


More seriously, to make the two halves meld, Charles resorts to unconvincing histrionics that cheapen Odile’s saga, which would have been a gripping and compelling on its own. The Paris Library is a good read, but were I the editor, I would have advised centering the book on Odile and would have left Lily in Montana to grow up on her own.


Rob Weir


* Lily’s school days might be an inside joke on Charles’ part. The only time Froid made the news was in 2007, when it had a graduating class of one!