Well, I’ve figured out how Bill Bryson writes his hugely amusing tomes. Yup, I sussed out the formula:

1. pick a topic of interest that folks don’t know much about

2. research it well, finding both fundamental facts and interesting tidbits

3. present the research in a conversational manner, dropping witticisms left and right.

Let’s see how this applies to the latest Bryson book I’ve read: The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

Point 1: Not many folks, least of all in America, know much about our language. This is kind of astonishing, given that it’s our primary means of communicating (trust me, I spent several weeks in small Swiss towns, and I can tell you from experience that language is the main method of communicating. Charades isn’t as fun when you want something to eat). But, other than the most common word (the) and letter (e), and the fact that English doesn’t have gendered words, I didn’t know much about English.

Point 2: This book shines here. Did you know that the word tits hasn’tchanged since the 10th century (page 215)? Or that Japan buys as many copies of the Oxford English Dictionary as the USA, and more than Britain (page 195)? Or that one sound (yi) in the Pekinese dialect of Mandarin stands for 215 words (page 86)? To support these sometimes absurd sounding claims, we get some footnotes and an eight page bibliography.

Point 3: As always, Bryson is prepared to take a pot shot at any ludicrous statement or proposition, and the English language provides plenty of those. Some of my favorites:

1. “…It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the British have such distinctive place-names not because they just accidentally evolved, but rather because the British secretly like living in places with names like Lower Slaughter and Great Snoring” (page 205).

2. Quoth a congressman, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me” (page 195). Bryson doesn’t even bother to comment on this, letting the absurdity scream for itself.

3. When examining the dictionary of Samuel Johnson, Bryson points out that Johnson defines “oats as a grain that sustained horses in England and people in Scotland” (page 153). He lets several of Johnson’s tart remarks speak for themselves, but he also examines why this English dictionary (which wasn’t the first) had such an impact.

Just the names of the chapters gives you and idea of the scope of this book. From “The World’s Language” to “Spelling” to “Names” to “Swearing,” Bryson leaves little out. Even the discussion of cross word puzzles and palindromes (hardly exciting stuff), in the “Wordplay” chapter, doesn’t bore.

Sure, it’s a formulaic book, but a damn good one.


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